Rosa Balfour, Corinna Hoerst and Marta Martinelli / Mar 2017
Perhaps unknown to many, gender equality is embedded in the history of the EU from the very start as a founding value and policy, enshrined in the constitutive treaty of the European Economic Community. Article 119 of the 1957 Treaty of Rome established the principle of equal pay for equal work for both women and men. Although the aim of the article, at the time, was one of harmonising labour costs, it was part of the post-World War II expansion of human rights of women and men.
Promoting gender equality within the EU has been a long and difficult path. Employment rights for women struggle to deliver on equal pay and the absence of women on boards is as striking as pervasive. While in theory there exist numerous EU initiatives on gender mainstreaming efforts - ensuring “that all phases of the political process (definition, planning, implementation, monitoring and evaluation and review) take into account a gender perspective, the low numbers of women in decision making positions, including in politics, continue to deprive the policy shaping process of valuable diverse, if not more gendered, perspectives.
The anniversary of the Treaty of Rome provides an opportunity to renew the EU’s commitment to gender equality particularly at a time when women experience a backlash against their rights in Europe and around the world. The trend of advancement on gender equality is uneven across EU Member States. More worryingly, backsliding is becoming more frequent. Women’s reproductive choices and the role of the state in protecting them are questioned in Poland and the US while Russia has recently decriminalized domestic violence. It has become normal – again – that political debates vilify women and other minorities, legitimizing misogyny, racism, and hate speech.
More is needed to protect and promote women’s rights. EU institutions and European policy makers do not always have legislative powers on domestic issues, even if they are transnational, but can use more creative ways to play a role in supporting women. Gender based (domestic) violence is one such area of limited EU competence but great relevance across Europe, where 1 in 4 women has experienced gender-based violence. The EU can push member states and associated institutions to collect and share more rigorous information on gender-based-domestic violence and require harmonization of data acquisition. Some Member States have advanced more than others in promoting gender equality: the EU is the right place and a real-world example for sharing best practices and promoting peer-reviewing of initiatives aimed at effectively fighting gender-based violence. Setting standards for inter-service collaboration (law enforcement, justice, and health services for instance), is one way that the EU can reinvigorate its commitment.
But institutions are not the sole agents of change. A real opportunity lies in the alliances of civil society groups and institutions to come together and combine their efforts and influence. When in the fall of 2016, the Polish government tried to change anti-abortion legislation, numerous Polish people and organizations reacted by staging public protests. Commissioner Jourova contributed too, by appearing in the European Parliament dressed in black like the protesters and by condemning the action of the Polish government. Tying the women’s mobilization to Central Europe’s past struggle for liberty gave the protest a broader meaning which helped the success of the movement, At a time when societies become increasingly fragmented and political elites suffer from a trust deficit, building alliances of diverse actors and institutions is critical to ensure that the struggle for women’s rights (and more inclusive democratic societies) continues to be sustainable.
The anniversary of the Rome Treaty comes at a time when we can no longer take our democracies and the rights of our citizens for granted. Women in Europe, in power and close to power, can play an instrumental role to ensure that the European ideal continue to focus on citizens and remind people that gender and women’s rights play a fundamental role in keeping societies secure, peaceful and prosperous.
The balanced participation of men and women is a fundamental requirement for democracy. Europe, and we who are part of it, can serve as a role model in ensuring that the definition, promotion and protection of women's rights in the EU and in the world; equal opportunities policy; the removal of all forms of discrimination and violence based on gender; the implementation and further development of gender mainstreaming in all policy sectors; and the follow-up and implementation of international agreements and conventions involving the rights of women are being upheld. All of us have a responsibility and opportunity to recommit!