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Women’s rights in the EU - progress but too slow!


Margot Wallström

Member of the European Commission for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy

Women’s rights in the EU – progress achieved but too slow!

Commissioners Group on Fundamental Rights, fight against discrimination and equal opportunities


So here we are celebrating the International Women’s Day.

And as my friend’s daughter asked - are all other days’ men’s days, then?

What is there really to celebrate?

- When women are being brutally beaten in Istanbul for demonstrating for the rights of women in connection with International Women's Day?

- When we see an Indian girl in tears on television – why? Because she cannot go to school! An estimated 880 million people in the world cannot read. Three-quarters of them are women...

- When at least one out of every three women around the world has been beaten or abused in her lifetime. (Amnesty International)

- When – in Europe – we have a modern kind of slave market - where about half a million women and girls, like 18-year old Mariana from Moldova, are sold and bought like commodities, to become sex-slaves in brothels inside the European Union. According to Interpol it is the fastest growing criminality in the world right now- and it has a turnover of about 4, 8 billion Euros.

Having said this I also recognize the achievements reached by women (and some men) all over the world in advancing the rights of women and the struggle for equality between women and men.

But progress is unfortunately too slow...

We are a Union of 450 million people, more than half of whom are women and girls. And we still cannot say that women in general enjoy the same status and have the same rights as men in European societies. Nor are they properly represented at national and international decision-making levels.

A balanced participation by women and men in decision-making, both in politics and economy, is vital to developing real democracy – and it is vital, as president Barroso points out to achieve economic prosperity!

And frankly, I do not think that the European institutions (EC, EP, ECOSOC, Committee of regions), are very good examples when it comes to a balanced participation.

I briefly checked in the European database, which by the way was launched last year by the commission. The data base presents statistics and graphs on the situation regarding the representation of women and men in politics, public administration, the judiciary, as well as in the economy. It is designed to measure progress and create awareness. It is actually still a matter of counting heads...

The statistics are not very positive: Although we have heard president Barroso on the progress made on this issue in this commission the fact remains:

29% women and 71% men in the college!

Not much better in the European Parliament 30% women - 70 % men, Committee of the regions 17% women 83 % men,

Economic and Social committee, 17% women 83% men (on the positive side is that the Economic and Social Committee indeed has a woman as its president!)

It seems that we in the institutions have a lot to catch up with. And of course recognizing at the same time that the institutions are a mere reflection of the general situation regarding balanced gender participation the European society. In many national governments and parliaments the situation is no better.

In the private sector there has been a rise in the number of women working as chairs of the executive or supervisory boards in the 50 publicly quoted companies in the European Union. An increase from 2% to 3 % this year!

With this rate we will only achieve gender balance in the next millennium!

The European Community has a treaty based obligation to eliminate inequalities and promote equality between women and men in all its activities. And we are working actively, for instance, the European Union has been instrumental when it comes to anti-discrimination legislation.

But significant gender gaps still persist in Europe in terms of employment, unemployment, pay, and of career progression. Women are increasingly well-educated. More and more, girls are out-performing boys in primary and secondary education. Yet these achievements are not reflected in professional life. Women continue to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility for caring for children and elderly relatives. The reconciliation of work and family life, which we talk about so much, is still mainly regarded as a woman's problem.

The issue of violence against and children in the home is a huge hidden problem. Domestic violence is, according to Amnesty figures, the major cause of death and disability for European women aged 16 to 44 and accounts for more death and ill-health than cancer or traffic accidents. Violence in the family is a factor that greatly affects women and contribute to their isolation in society and to their performance both when it comes to employment and participation in society overall.

This of course leads us to the importance but also the challenge of adopting gender mainstreaming as a central strategy within Europe and within each member state by asserting that there are no gender neutral public policies or programmes. And with the launch of the new Gender Institute we will further develop our tools for integrating gender equality in all policy areas.

Whether we are talking about the European employment strategy, the national action plans on social inclusion, the structural Funds, pension provisions or public health strategies, it is very important to be clear that these are not simply technical instruments that have automatically the same impact on all people – on the contrary - what we find is that all public policy, all public programmes impact differently on women and on men. And the budgets that are allocated to the implementations of public policy reflect how institutions, national governments, or local authorities mobilise resources, set their social and economic priorities and shape their public responses to social and economic challenges.

At the end of the day I think it is crucial that we all take gender equality into our areas of work. The Eurobarometer shows that men and women throughout Europe share the same political concerns: According to the Eurobarometer, unemployment, the economic situation and crime rank first for both genders.

However, our surveys show that women tend to be slightly less positive than men about the European Union. For example, while 61% of the male population think that their country’s membership to the Union is a good thing, this is true for only 52% of women.

Does this mean that women take a more negative stance? Absolutely not! Women are on average simply more neutral or more indifferent when it comes to the Union and there is also a specific European dimension: Only 39% of women say that they understand how the EU works – vs. 56% of men. And women are less convinced that decisions taken by the Union have an impact on their daily life.

One of our goals for the years to come is to show how the Union concretely has an effect on people’s lives. That is where our work on gender equality comes in. This is necessary if we want citizens, including women, to understand that Europe is not something far away and to feel involved in the European project.

Today I think we should pay tribute to all the thousands of women’s organisations all around Europe and the world that are fighting for women’s rights and gender equality. Without their diligence and their stamina I am afraid that the situation would look even worse for equal rights between women and men. Let me take the opportunity to congratulate the European Women’s Lobby for the invaluable work they are doing!

We need to:

• Ensure full economic and social rights for women in the labour market, social protection and pensions, reconciliation of work and family, gender budgeting.

• Increase the number of women in leadership roles in general and political decision making in particular.

• Strengthen women’s human rights in particular affirming women’s sexual and reproductive rights and eradicating violence against women including trafficking and prostitution.

One of my friends, active in politics and married to a chef, went to a dinner and heard her youngest daughter comment:

“What a strange house – the woman is in the kitchen!”

We are comforted by our children’s love and affection. At least they see that the role of men and women in society can be changed!

Macho doesn’t prove mucho – as famous queen of glamour, Zsa Zsa Gabour once said!

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