Rebuilding on Equal Foundations

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

Helena Dalli: "When the virus hit us shortly after that, it did not take long before its disproportionate consequences for women were brought to light." [EPA-EFE/POOL / OLIVIER HOSLET]

This International Women’s Day takes place roughly one year after the start of the coronavirus pandemic. On 5 March last year we adopted the EU’s Gender Equality Strategy for this mandate with a number of measures aimed at ensuring that women are free, can lead and thrive on an equal basis to men, writes Helena Dalli.

Helena Dalli is a Maltese labour politician serving as European Commissioner for Equality.

When the virus hit us shortly after that, it did not take long before its disproportionate consequences for women were brought to light.

Women were at the frontline in hospitals and care work, and were exposed to the virus and its health risks while caring for others. Women helped ensure that our essential services were kept running. And yet, when childcare and schools closed, women were shouldering an even larger share of unpaid care work. We have also seen incidences of domestic violence increasing sharply during lockdown.

Besides, women are also feeling the financial strain as they are overrepresented in the sectors affected most by the Covid-19 fallout. For instance, in the hospitality sector where 61% of the workforce are women, employment fell by 23% between the second quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020.

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an exacerbation of long-standing gender inequalities. All the more reason to implement the measures that we laid out in the Gender Equality Strategy and in the meantime ensure that we move towards a post-pandemic Europe where gender inequalities and societal segregation become a thing of the past.

We must rebuild our foundations and ensure that the European Union that stands on them is a union of equality. As we look at the different sectors of our societies and build back better, we must conduct a similar exercise on gender equality and equality mainstreaming in general. We cannot allow the achievements of the past years in the field of gender equality to be reversed.

We must therefore make sure that the needs and perspectives of women are at the centre of the European recovery programmes and funds. In December last year, the co-legislators reached an agreement on the Recovery and Resilience Facility – the biggest building block of the €750 billion Next Generation EU stimulus package.

Both the European Parliament and the Council have now formally approved the Regulation establishing the Facility, and Member States should submit their national plans by the end of April.

The Regulation establishing the Recovery and Resilience Facility is clear and strong on gender equality. It obliges Member States to explain how the measures in the national recovery plans are expected to contribute to gender equality and equal opportunities for all and how these objectives will be mainstreamed in the plans.

The Commission will examine how this is implemented, to ensure that the recovery plans have a strong gender dimension. These financial instruments can help implement the policy proposals and make the recovery gender-responsive.

We must bring those women who lost their jobs back to the labour market and invest more in care services. We have the instruments for that, through the European Social Fund.

We must ensure that the principle of equal pay for equal work or work of equal value is enforced. In this regard, I look forward to the negotiations with Council and Parliament on the proposals towards a Pay Transparency Directive presented last week, and hope that it will be adopted swiftly.

Women must play a key role in decision-making. Inclusive and diverse perspectives are crucial to ensure sustainable and resilient societies. Recent analysis point to a lack of gender balance in the COVID-19 crisis management structures in the EU and also globally. Research covering 87 UN member states shows that only 3.5% of 115 identified COVID-19 decision-making and expert task forces have gender parity in their membership, while in 85.2% of cases the majority are men.

The adoption of the women on boards directive, which aims at promoting gender balance on corporate boards, figures high on the political agenda of this Commission. Beyond that proposal, the Commission continues to support Member States in developing and implementing more effective strategies to increase the number of women in decision-making positions.

Finally, we must address gender-based violence as a union and have effective EU legislation in this regard. During the first year of my mandate I engaged with Member States with the aim of reaching an agreement for an EU ratification of the Istanbul Convention.

While we have not given up on that goal, we are concurrently leading on a process towards the preparation and presentation of an EU legislative framework to tackle violence against women. Funding will also be made available through the new Citizens, Equality, Rights and Values Programme to support projects promoting gender equality and combatting gender-based violence.

Today we commemorate the struggles of those women who worked before us so that we could advance. We thank our predecessors, while as the foregoing suggests, acknowledging that we still have a long way to go.

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