The EU Gender Equality Strategy is the beginning of a new chapter

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

"We are even witnessing a worrying backlash against women’s rights and gender equality worldwide." [StunningArt / Shutterstock]

This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration – the 1995 UN agenda for women’s empowerment. It articulated, for the first time, a comprehensive worldwide action plan to achieve gender equality, write four socialist politicians.

The authors who sign this op-ed are Iratxe García, leader of the Socialists and Democrats in the European Parliament (S&D), Sergei Stanishev, president of the Party of European Socialists, Maria Noichl, S&D coordinator for women’s issues, and Zita Gurmai, PES Women President.

A quarter of a century has passed, but the issues which the Beijing Declaration addresses persist – lack of equal rights, economic and political participation, gender-based violence and more. We are even witnessing a worrying backlash against women’s rights and gender equality worldwide.

In the EU today, the gender pay gap is 16% and the pension gap is at least 30%. Women still undertake more unpaid work – 79% do housework every day for an hour or more, compared to just 34% of men.

Women are still underrepresented, making up just 30% of MPs in national parliaments (2018) and only around 40% of MEPs today. Less than 27% of board members of the largest companies are women. 1 in 3 women over the age of 15 years has experienced some form of physical or sexual violence.

At least one woman is killed every day by an intimate partner or family member. Sexual and reproductive health and rights, bodily autonomy and freedom of choice about one’s body and life – fundamental human rights and preconditions for gender equality – are once again in question in many countries, including EU member states.

25 years on from Beijing, public frustration has never been higher – women’s rights defenders are facing a backlash and too little progress has been made to break down patriarchal structures. Millions have marched for gender equality. This shows the need for EU-wide action.

2020 can represent a paradigm shift for women – the EU has its first female European Commission President and a progressive Commissioner for Equality, and now – ahead of International Women’s Day – the Commission launched its Gender Equality Strategy.

The Strategy is a victory for progressives across Europe – the PES, the S&D, the FEMM Committee, PES Women and others – who campaigned hard for it. We can use this fresh start to make our continent fairer for all women, regardless of race, age, ethnicity, social and economic background, religion, disability or sexual orientation.

The document is ambitious, representing a step-up from the EU’s former Strategic Engagement and staff guidelines produced during the last mandate. It tackles the issue of gender-based violence and calls, as a first step, for the full ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

It promises to propose measures at the EU level in 2021 if the Convention ratification remains blocked, for example, the extension of the list of EU crimes to specific forms of gender-based violence. It focuses on tackling the gender pay and pension gaps, including through binding pay transparency measures, driving forward parity and equal sharing of care responsibilities.

It also foresees measures to empower women in the digital and care economy, in decision-making and in political participation.

As social democrats we particularly welcome the concrete measures to fight gender bias and stereotypes, taking into account the impact of the media and audio-visual industry.

Measures in the Strategy address women and men in all their diversity through an intersectional approach, which is a positive step. Gender budgeting and sex-disaggregated data collection, a long-standing demand of our political family, are also included.

We are happy to see that, through the Strategy, the Commission intends to look closely at member states’ policies and their impacts on gender equality, in areas such as taxation for example.

Facilitating gender mainstreaming in all EU policies through the newly created Task Force for Equality is another important step to make gender equality a reality. And the Strategy acknowledges the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights by promoting regular exchanges of good practices between stakeholders and member states.

These are solid, progressive, measures. But the push for a feminist Europe is not over – we still need to guarantee access to sexual education, counter the negative effects austerity has on women, and fight the far-right and conservative backlash against gender equality.

If we succeed and create a Europe without gender discrimination, the benefits will be huge, socially and economically. It is not a women-only issue – according to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), more gender equality would create 10.5 million jobs and increase EU GDP per capita by up to €3.15 trillion by 2050.

Looking back, the Beijing Declaration was a bold document. It clearly set out where urgent action was needed. The EU Gender Equality Strategy can be just as influential. But it will require adequate financing, concrete and binding policy and sustained effort from the European Commission and member states – goodwill alone from the Commission President will not be enough.

We are proud that the Strategy is being put forward and implemented by a progressive Equality Commissioner Helena Dalli.

And we are proud that progressive governments have led by example at the national level – from Finland’s equal parental leave provisions, to the Swedish law recognising sex without consent as rape, and Spain’s State Pact against gender-based violence.

Those campaigning to achieve gender equality can count on progressives – we will never stop fighting for women’s rights and equal societies. The EU Gender Equality Strategy is a great start, and we look forward to the next steps. 2020 must be the start of a new chapter for gender equality.

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