Human Rights Day: Women's rights are human rights

The rights of women are under threat of being rolled back in the shadow of COVID-19 and ultra-conservative governments. Lorna Hutchinson reports.

By Lorna Hutchinson

Lorna Hutchinson is Deputy Editor of The Parliament Magazine

10 Dec 2020

On 5 September 1995, Hillary Clinton delivered a speech to the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, China. And her words have resonated ever since: “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.”

This speech will go down in history as a key moment in the women’s rights movement.

Yet 25 years later, instead of continuing to make ever-larger strides in the fight for gender equality, women are treading water in the 21st century, struggling to hold onto the rights they fought so hard to win.

S&D Group leader in the European Parliament, Iratxe García Pérez says that the Beijing Declaration - the resolution adopted at the Conference - continues to be the benchmark on gender equality issues at a global level.

2020 has come with an unexpected shock; we are facing a global pandemic that is hitting women harder than men and threatens to jeopardise the progress achieved in gender equality all around the worldIratxe García Pérez, S&D Group leader

“But 2020 has come with an unexpected shock; we are facing a global pandemic that is hitting women harder than men and threatens to jeopardise the progress achieved in gender equality all around the world, including in the European Union.”

“The United Nations estimates that, due to the pandemic, 47 million women and girls will be pushed into extreme poverty in 2021, raising the global total to 435 million.”

Indeed, this year has dealt a particularly heavy blow to the gender equality movement, with the Coronavirus outbreak disproportionately impacting women.

The European Institute for Gender Equality warned at the beginning of the first lockdown in Europe in March that the pandemic would reveal the different realities of women and men, with caring responsibilities often falling heavily on women.

With the closure of schools and workplaces, the unpaid workload for women was further intensified and reports of domestic violence soared.

With many countries now imposing a second national lockdown on the back of the second wave of COVID-19, the pressure on women is unrelenting.

García Pérez says that in addition, women are on the front line of the pandemic as they make up the majority of workers in the healthcare system and in the retail sector.

“They will also be heavily affected on the economic side, as they already have lower salaries, higher rates of unemployment, overrepresentation in part-time work and precarious jobs; situations that have been worsened with the pandemic crisis.”

“Many women will lose their jobs and the experience of previous crises show that men’s work recovers faster and earlier than women’s.”

Since the beginning of the pandemic, authoritarian governments have capitalised on the fear spread by the Coronavirus to make opportunistic power grabs; this in turn has heralded significant rollbacks in women’s rights.

In July, Poland decided to withdraw from the ground-breaking Istanbul Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, citing “unacceptable ideological provisions.”

More recently, Poland’s highest court ruled that legislation allowing women to seek an abortion on the grounds of severe foetal impairment was “incompatible” with the constitution.

The only grounds for accessing an abortion in Poland will now be in the case of rape, incest, or if there is a threat to the mother’s life. This ruling, which is tantamount to a near-total ban on abortion, has sparked mass protests across Poland and beyond.

Gender equality and women’s empowerment is not the icing on the cake; it is crucial to solving the problems of our societyKaren Melchior, Renew Europe

The European Parliament’s first ever Gender Equality Week on 26-29 October, organised at the initiative of Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM), marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.

The Week was designed to shine a spotlight on the long-running battle for women’s empowerment and gender equality as well as give more visibility and recognition to gender mainstreaming in all policy areas.

Danish Renew Europe Group MEP Karen Melchior, a member of the FEMM Committee, says that Gender Equality Week was “a great occasion to bring gender equality to the attention of all Parliament’s committees to truly ‘mainstream’ gender equality, in actions not just words.”

She explains that women’s empowerment and gender equality concern all the work of the European Parliament and that many are unaware of this.

“Women are not present in statistics, policy development and our political minds, as highlighted by [British feminist author] Caroline Criado Perez in her aptly titled book ‘Invisible Women.’ Gender equality and women’s empowerment is not the icing on the cake; it is crucial to solving the problems of our society.”

“Women felt the impact of COVID-19 this year in their homes across Europe, yet women were forgotten in the negotiation rooms in Brussels.”

Spanish Greens/EFA Group deputy Ernest Urtasun says that as a fellow member of the FEMM Committee, he works to make equality between women and men a reality in Europe and beyond.

He explains, “In the coming months, I will work to break the blockage of the Women on Boards Directive, push for a wage transparency directive to combat the wage gap between men and women, and monitor the implementation of the European directive against trafficking in human beings.”

“I will also be working to implement the recommendations of the report that I drafted together with my colleague Hannah Neumann on gender equality in the EU’s foreign and security policy, which was adopted some weeks ago by a majority of the European Parliament.”

I feel encouraged by the thousands of women claiming their rights in all the corners of the world. They need to know they are not alone

Ernest Urtasun, Greens/EFA

Urtasun says he truly believes that diversity improves political decisions.

“Nowadays we are in a crisis situation where women, more than ever, need to be involved in foreign and security policy and have a seat at the negotiating table as they are still largely underrepresented in these areas.”

“This is why the report asks for a quota of 50 percent women in all management positions in the European External Action Service. If we want to set an example for the world, we need to start by applying these principles to our own institutions.”

He adds, “We tend to think of the road to equality as a straight path where you always move forward, but this is not the case. However, I feel encouraged by the thousands of women claiming their rights in all the corners of the world. They need to know they are not alone.”

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