During last year’s International Women’s Day, none of us could have imagined the challenges women were about to face with the COVID-19 pandemic and its taxing lockdowns. It is thanks to the women working in healthcare, food supply and education that society managed to stay afloat.
At the same time, these very women were overlooked by most newly passed laws and regulations. Women gave up their personal time to support their children in home schooling, were forced to accept applause instead of financial remuneration for their work on the frontlines fighting the pandemic, all the while being disproportionally affected by unemployment across the EU.
“Gender budgeting and gender mainstreaming must be applied in all political areas. It is, after all, this half, the strong women across Europe, that deserve our deepest gratitude for their roles in the current crisis”
What we all have experienced in the past year has brought about drastic changes to the ‘normal’ we were used to. The healthcare sector in particular found itself under the spotlight. The sector’s employees - 75 percent of whom are women - were, and continue to give, everything they can. But the waves of applause that once filled our cities have now faded out, and with it went the public’s attention. Let us not forget them: a ‘Care Deal for Europe’ is now more important than ever. What is needed is a high-quality care infrastructure, high-quality working conditions and decent wages in these essential sectors.
As our offices shifted to our living rooms and children could no longer attend school, those who performed unpaid care work saw a steep increase in their workload. Again, the bulk of this work rested, and still rests, on the shoulders of women. It is crucial that both partners participate equally in house and care work, lest we slide back to a perception of women that befits the 1950s. In addition, domestic violence has increased by 30 percent in the EU since the first lockdown.
The home is still the most dangerous place for women. Unfortunately, instead of improving, some Member States such as Poland and Hungary have used the past year to push their misogynist agendas even further. The de facto abortion ban in Poland demonstrates a complete disregard for human rights and the human dignity of women. The self-determination of women over their own bodies and a non-violent life are fundamental rights and a truly constitutional state demands that they be protected. In times of a pandemic, human rights must be upheld by us all.
Moreover, many women who were not employed in professions with the opportunity for working from home are facing pandemic-induced unemployment: an astonishing 80 percent of the people in Austria who became unemployed due to the pandemic, and 90 percent of those in Portugal, are women, with other Member States following similar patterns.
As a trade unionist and Chair of the European Parliament’s Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee, I find these are alarming numbers. I can therefore say, without a doubt, that half of any Recovery funds should directly support women. In order to ensure that we never again forget half of the population, gender budgeting and gender mainstreaming must be applied in all political areas. It is, after all, this half - the strong women across Europe - that deserve our deepest gratitude for their roles in the current crisis.
“The de facto abortion ban in Poland demonstrates a complete disregard for human rights and the human dignity of women”
Furthermore, we need further active policies that go beyond the well-deserved recognition of women’s essential contribution to our societies, as highlighted by the pandemic. It is important that we start supporting women more, not only in the recovery fund but far beyond. Now is the time for bold measures, so let’s do them right. With our dedication, the green, digital and social renewal of our economy can be an equal one, benefitting everyone. In the labour market, a pay transparency directive, such as the one due to be proposed by the European Commission, is an important step forward.
A European minimum wage and employee-centred rules for teleworking are vital next steps. Progress demands solid investments across all political areas on the EU level, as well as in Member States. Legal protection, institutional childcare, the right to disconnect and the effective implementation of the work-life balance guidelines are examples of measures we can take to support our women immediately. To act now is more important than ever.
Feminist politics have already achieved so much but are now increasingly under threat. Let us leave the inequalities of the past behind and make the 21st century the century of women. This is what drives my work in the European Parliament and the Women’s Rights and Gender equality Committee, day in, day out. Until we have reached that goal, I will never stop fighting to make all women’s voices heard.