'Long way to go' on achieving gender equality

Parliament president Martin Schulz opened the spring forward for women conference, which brought together MEPs and members of various Arab parliaments to discuss the issue of gender equality and how best to involve women in politics.

By Julie Levy-Abegnoli

06 Nov 2014

This week Schulz kicked off the spring forward for women conference, which aims to bring about ideas for encouraging political representation of women, with particular focus on women in Arab countries.

The conference comes as world leaders gear up for the 59th session of the commission on the status of women, due to take place next March at the UN headquarters in New York. At this meeting, heads of states will discuss the progress that has been made 20 years after the implementation of the Beijing platform for action - an agenda for the empowerment of women.

Schulz said that the conference was "a good example of how parliamentarians can exchange ideas and examples of best practices". He told the audience that "women's representation […] in the European parliament has constantly increased since the first direct election in 1979".

However, currently only 35 per cent of MEPs are women, and Schulz conceded this "is not equality".

The president of the parliament pointed out that "we all want our daughters to have the same opportunities and rights our sons have" and said that he felt "ashamed as a father that [his] girl has less chances than [his] son".

Schulz bemoaned that "in some countries it is more dangerous to be a woman than to be a soldier" and said "we are here to take action, it is our duty to support" young women who live in challenging conditions.

He also pointed to the increasing incidence of rape being used as a weapon of war, saying "we must do our utmost to eradicate" this "horrendous practice".

"We all want our daughters to have the same opportunities and rights our sons have" - Martin Schulz

Regarding equal rights between men and women, he reminded the audience that "we are talking about things that every human being should be able to take for granted" and that "we still have a long way to go".

Iratxe García Pérez, chair of parliament's women's rights and gender equality committee, highlighted that "women, whoever they are, wherever they are, should have the same opportunities".

According to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, executive director of UN women, at the rate things are currently progressing, men and women will not have equal rights until 2095. She said that this was "a wake up call for all of us" and that "this is not the progress we were hoping for, it is incremental and slow".

She urged public officials to take "bold and bigger steps".

Mlambo-Ngcuka described gender equality as "a societal issue that involves both men and women", urging everyone to "roll up [their] sleeves and do this collaboratively".

She also shared that "a recent IMF study found that gender equality in labour participation rates will have a strong positive impact on GDP [gross domestic product]". She pointed out that "there is no nation in the world that doesn't want growth, so it is counterproductive not to work for gender equality".

Mlambo-Ngcuka believes the current rate of women in the European parliament - 35 per cent - is "interesting", but that "women in Europe want much more and much faster". She added that "one out of two women should be a parliamentarian, not one out of five".

Stavros Lambrinidis, EU special representative for human rights, echoed Mlambo-Ngcuka's sentiment saying, "we have in the past 10 years progressed dramatically in women's participation in the workforce, but it is still lagging behind by an important percentage".

While "we have an obligation to focus primarily on educating women", the EU official contended that "we also have to focus on educating boys and men because in many instances, it is not simply a legal change that is required to bring about gender equality, but it is a change in hearts and minds, and that requires boys and men to be equally educated".

"[Gender equality is] a societal issue that involves both men and women" - Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka

Michael Köhler, director for neighbourhood at the commission's DG development and cooperation, agreed that men also need to be involved in the conversation and that "gender issues are by no means just a women's issue".

He added that "if there is gender discrimination and inequality, then we don't have full democracy".

Linda McAvan, chair of parliament's committee on development, spoke of her experiences and struggles as a woman in politics, and agreed with her colleagues that "we still have a long way to go in terms of equal representation".

Heidi Hautala, vice-chair of the Greens/EFA group, encouraged "all women to look at how competent, great women could be made visible through affirmative action such as gender quotas". In her home country of Finland, women make up 40 per cent of members of parliament - the second highest rate in the industrialised world, after Sweden.

The spring forward for women conference placed a particular focus on women from Arab countries, and female politicians from Egypt and Morocco were invited to speak about their experiences

Sanaa Gamaleldin, a former member of the Egyptian parliament, was pleased that her country's "revolution last June was a quantum leap for [women]", as they now have more political representation.

Thanks to the new constitution which was adopted in January, women may now stand for all political office in Egypt, with 25 per cent of local authority posts reserved for women. Gamaleldin sees this as "true progress"

Rachida Tahri, a member of parliament in Morocco, said that "we as women have been able to achieve a lot […] but obviously there is still a lot to be done". She explained that in her country, "in the laws there are no barriers, however, on the ground this is not the case".

Echoing the thoughts of the other speakers on the panel, she stressed that "it is very important for the culture of opportunities to take root", and that men and women alike must be educated on the importance of gender equality.

Members of parliament were due to discuss the issues brought up at the conference during a committee meeting, and set out a list of policy priorities.



Read the most recent articles written by Julie Levy-Abegnoli - MEPs vote against beginning negotiations on updating EU copyright laws