It’s time to deal with gender inequality

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

Shannon Pfohman [Caritas Europa]

Resilient women are agents of change today, but it’s time for European policy makers to counter the inequalities between men and women, writes Shannon Pfohman.

Shannon Pfohman is Head of Policy at Caritas Europa.

Having just observed International Women’s Day, I would like to commemorate the personal, social, educational, cultural, scientific, political and economic achievements made through the leadership and contribution of women; secondly, to recognize the particular situation and resilience of women and girls in a world rife with inequalities; and finally, to urge European policy makers to intervene to foster equality (equal dignity, equal opportunities) and equity and put an end to the pervasive disadvantages affecting women and girls.

Women and girls make up an estimated 60% of undernourished people worldwide. Global comparisons show a strong correlation between hunger and inequality between men and women. Countries ranking highest on the index of global hunger are also the countries with more severe inequalities. Around the world, the fear of not knowing how to feed one’s family the next day falls disproportionately on women, as millions of women are forced to watch their children go hungry and fall prey to illness.

In Europe as well, many women are forced to worry about their daily subsistence and ability to support their family’s needs. Women are typically disadvantaged in accessing employment, enjoying equal pay for equal work, and in participating in professional training. Women are more likely to be unemployed, out of work, and in part-time or limited job contracts. On average women earn 16% less than men per hour of work, and female top-earners are paid 21% less than their male counterparts in OECD countries. A lack of respect by employers regarding the right to maternity leave and co-responsibility in family care, as well as a lack of understanding about this care from male partners and relatives contributes to the desparate situation. Women also occupy less than a fifth of parliamentary seats around the world and their access to top positions in companies is even worse.

Yet, inequality is not inevitable.

Nonetheless, 74% of the imposed budgetary cuts in Europe have affected women, who are also less likely to be members of a trade union or to benefit from collective bargaining. At the moment, there is a 39% pension gap between men and women in Europe, alluding to the eventual economic deterioration of a collective population of elderly women; yet another category at high risk of poverty. Also – something we at Caritas observe – elderly women are more likely, despite their limited resources, to want to support the basic needs of their unemployed, adult-age children and impoverished grandchildren.

Imposed austerity measures are not delivering positive results toward the common good. Women are getting poorer, as inequalities rise. Lone-parent families, often headed by (young) women, are the most affected by social exclusion and poverty in Europe. When services are removed, vulnerable families at risk of poverty are more likely to remain impoverished, leading to a new phenomenon in Europe known as “generational poverty”. Not only are women more likely to be single parents, but they are also commonly caregivers to elderly parents, thus working, but not necessarily earning an income.

Our member organisations monitoring poverty and social exclusion in Europe are also witnessing an increase in women’s migration flows, as well as multi-layer discrimination occurring in the fields of employment, healthcare and education, among others. To complete the picture, one cannot forget to mention the worrying phenomenon of trafficking in human beings, mostly affecting women, and the lack of measures to protect them.

As a result of these many challenges, disadvantages, and inequalities, the highly relevant contributions women are making as major players in creating solutions in their countries sometimes escape recognition. Yet, women are exhibiting their resilience by learning new farming techniques, joining together to save and loan each other money, and working on projects that help them grow more food to feed their families and communities. Women are working in job sectors that are better performing, and are increasing their education by taking qualifications and language classes. Women are pooling their strength, engaging in empowerment activities, supporting their dependents and their communities in collective housing projects, and ensuring that their children’s health and educational needs are being met. Women are active in neighbourhood, school and church associations and contribute to sustainable solutions to enhance the full participation of all members of society. We could learn so many things from these (often silenced and hidden) female leaders.

“It would be naïve to conflate equality with sameness. The approach to women… must acknowledge and enable women to overcome barriers to equality without forcing them to abandon what is essential to them. Women worldwide do not live in isolation, but exist within the context of relationships which provide meaning, richness, identity, and human love. Their relationships, especially their role within the family – as mothers, wives, caregivers – have profound effects on the choices women make and their own prioritisation of the rights which they exercise across their lifespans,” Archbishop Francis A. Chullikatt.

This must be enabled. Flexible working arrangements, the removal of financial disincentives for second earners, childcare and elderly care facilities, social and cultural services, fair pension schemes and social protection, as well as measures to retain older women workers are some strategies that could foster women’s participation and the practice of their rights.

At a time when social welfare systems are being downsized and individuals and families are falling deeper into poverty, it is imperative that European leaders listen to and involve women more systematically in decisions that contribute to structural inequalities that disadvantage not only them, but whole communities. Fostering equality and equity between men and women in all policies and practices is a minimal necessity, as is investing in women’s leadership in decision making structures and processes. Politicians have choices, and it is time for them to act!

With my deepest esteem to all women, always.

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