Bonino: Time to accelerate gender equality

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The 20th Century brought great advances for gender equality all over Europe, argues the vice-president of Italian Senate, Emma Bonino, but much remains to be done, especially in Italy. In this exclusive interview with EURACTIV, she suggests a few tools that could accelerate women's empowerment.

Emma Bonino is vice-president of the Italian Senate and a former European commissioner. She is a leading member of the Italian Radical Party.

She was speaking to EURACTIV Managing Editor Daniela Vincenti-Mitchener.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here

Hundreds of women rallied in Rome and other cities last month because they say Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi offended women. We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day. Would you say that in terms of equality, Italy is stuck in the last century?

The last century ended only 11 years ago and transformed women's lives like no other century: including for Italian women, who during the 1970s and 1980s acquired equality of rights.

Today many of them feel satisfied, as they managed to occupy top positions in different sectors. However, that is far from sufficient: in Southern Italy, female employment is way below European targets, while in the north, women do not reach top managerial jobs, and in general, Italy lags behind other European countries in terms of gender parity.

Change in Italy has slowed down in the last 20 years, maybe women believed that they had won their battle, which is not true, as today there is a real need for acceleration. It is in this sense that we should interpret the demonstrations of women last February, and the other initiatives of female society.

On a more general note, do you think women have been empowered enough, especially in politics and decision-making?

Definitely not: decision-making positions are widely dominated by men, and female representation in politics is insufficient. This is a grave symptom, because it obstructs the establishment of meritocracy, and it does not create enough space to consider women's issues.

This still takes place even though it has been proven that major participation of women is necessary for better and more equal development.

What is missing?

For instance, a network of services that would relieve women from the fatigue that they are bearing today, considering that domestic responsibilities rest almost entirely on their shoulders, from childcare to assisting their elderly.

This could be accomplished by using the funds saved from the recent increase of women's state pension age. Furthermore, there should be an authority against gender discrimination, in accordance with Directive 54 of the European Community, which is independent from the government, with the power to impose sanctions.

Finally, the public media, which has a major influence on society, should contribute to eradicating a culture which is still strongly based on old stereotypes and traditions that do not exist anymore. Unfortunately, women's representation in Italian media is still very stereotyped, and usually forgets women with careers who work and contribute to the economic growth of the country.

EU Commissioner Viviane Reding is trying to impose quotas for women in board rooms. Some countries have zipped lists to ensure equal representation of women and men during elections. Do you think quotas are the solution to increase the number of women in key positions?

Today there is a big debate on quotas for women in our country, and an increasing number of women are asking for a quota system, probably because they are disappointed with the low progress registered in recent years.

However, I'm convinced that quotas are not the solution, especially in a country where nepotism prevails over merit, and they might bring to top positions inadequate women, selected for their docility and not for their capacity.  

Is legislation enough? What else can be done to improve gender equality in Europe?

Good laws are indispensable, but there should be also constant practice and promotion of a more equal and a more open culture. My experience leads me to believe that the conditions of women and the quality of prisons are two good indicators for measuring the civility of a country.

And the level of civility concerns everybody, including men. It's also good to remember that the emancipation of European women is determined by the availability of immigrant domestic workers, thus permitting women to focus on their careers. Here we should remember that immigrant women participate in gender equality.

When do you think we will reach the 50/50 equation in Italian politics?

When Italian women start to use their voting power, and when we start getting involved in political life and make our voices heard. No change and no improvement will come for free.

What's your wish for the next generations of women? What advances you hope they will be celebrating at the second centenary of Women's Day?

My wish for the new generations is that each girl in the world is free to choose, and that this choice won't cost her a lot in terms of fatigue or risk. I hope that in the second centenary we will celebrate at least the equality of human and civil rights of all women, and not only of those of the first world, and that the right to life, studying, working, choosing, is equal for all.

It's not that much, right? However, compared with today's world, it would be a better world. 

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