This is how we achieve true equality for Europe

Frances Fitzgerald MEP

Frances Fitzgerald MEP explores how the EU can help achieve true gender equality in the EU.

Brussels (Brussels Morning) The question of equality and inequality within our societies has come to the fore once again through the COVID-19 pandemic: between older and younger persons, between North and South, East and West, and between different socio-economic groups. However, it is particularly prevalent when it comes to equality between the genders. Domestic violence, childcare pressures and difficulties accessing routine healthcare have all had a differential impact on women in the past year, not creating new challenges but rather exacerbating existing ones.

Ensuring all citizens have equal opportunities to succeed, economically, socially and politically is at the heart of our mission as Members of the Group of the European People’s Party in the European Parliament. We want every woman to have the opportunity to lead an ambitious and fulfilling life. From a healthy birth to a fulfilling education, from the decision to enter a fair labour market to choosing to have a family, from full participation in public life to providing for women as they grow older. 

We are still far from reaching full gender equality and to get there we must tackle gender-based violence, empower women economically, and ensure that women’s healthcare is accessible for all.

Istanbul Convention

Tragically, one in three women in the EU, aged 15 or over, has experienced some form of physical or sexual violence and reports of domestic violence have risen rapidly through COVID-19 confinement. Combatting violence in all its forms is an absolute priority. The EU, member states and authorities must do everything in their power to eradicate it, to support victims and to prosecute perpetrators. 

For that reason, we are urging all member states to ratify the Istanbul Convention, the first international, legally binding instrument to combat such heinous crimes. An EU-wide definition of violence against women, including forms online and offline, as well as adding violence against women to the list of EU crimes, ensuring no impunity for these crimes in any member state would also empower authorities to take action. 

Human trafficking is an especially horrific violation of human rights, and almost half of victims (44%) are trafficked within the EU. Women and girls, particularly Roma women and girls, continue to be the most vulnerable to trafficking (68%), trafficking for sexual exploitation being most common. The EPP Group is calling on the European Commission to introduce a Directive on Combatting Trafficking for Sexual Exploitation in order to bring perpetrators, abusers and exploiters to justice. There should also be more effort to coordinate police and judicial cooperation through Europol and Eurojust.

Empowering women as citizens and economic actors is critical for the future prosperity of our economies, our societies and in order to tackle poverty. Women continue to be under-represented in senior positions across many fields, including business, science, trade union representation, and politics and public office, despite the fact they account for nearly half of the workforce and more than half of university graduates in the EU. Despite their higher qualifications, women work more frequently in part time positions, particularly women with children. Combining work and family life poses many challenges, and women in particular seek to adjust their careers for family life and care responsibilities. 

It is women who have kept Europe running during the last 12 months, making up the majority of key frontline workers. Seventy-six percent of EU health workers are women; 93% of childcare workers are women; 95% of domestic cleaners are women; 86% of personal care workers are women; and 82% of retail cashiers are women. 

Yet, women earn on average 14.1% less than men in the EU. 

Transparency

The EPP Group stands for equal pay for equal work and supports working towards a harmonised European framework on pay transparency, while taking due account of the unique circumstances of small to medium businesses in the EU. The European Commission’s new proposals on pay transparency, published last week are extremely welcome in this regard. The gender pension gap also needs to be addressed while the full transposition of the Work-Life Balance Directive would greatly benefit working parents and carers. In addition, the need for a European Care Strategy to allow EU cooperation in the area of care is essential.

Further development of women’s creativity and entrepreneurial potential is necessary as an untapped source of economic growth and jobs. Female entrepreneurship and access to loans and equity finance should be advanced through EU programmes and funds as well as the European Investment Bank in terms of access to microfinance. Women in rural areas also need adequate access to infrastructure and opportunities, for example through  the Common Agricultural Policy. 

Education, training and new digital skills, with a particular focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects through training and life-long learning can enhance equal opportunities — girls should be encouraged to take up mathematics and science subjects in school. EU funds and programmes, including Erasmus+ can offer effective support.

The EPP group is also committed to a positive and proactive approach to healthcare, throughout the lifecycle. We believe that women should be enabled to guide their own healthcare, supported by medical professionals. In addition, a strong gender perspective is needed in the Disability Equality Strategy 2021 to empower and support the 46 million women and girls who live with disabilities in the EU.

With each of these areas separately and for gender equality as a whole, the actions and support of men will be essential: we cannot achieve our goals without male champions. Men in leadership roles in every sector have a particular responsibility and role to play. If men and women share these values, we will make progress. 

Gender equality is crucial for human rights, sustainable development and smart economies. On this International Women’s Day 2021, let us choose to challenge our lawmakers to commit and make greater efforts to achieve true equality for Europe.

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Brussels Morning is a daily online newspaper based in Belgium. BM publishes unique and independent coverage on international and European affairs. With a Europe-wide perspective, BM covers policies and politics of the EU, significant Member State developments, and looks at the international agenda with a European perspective.
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Frances Fitzgerald is an Irish MEP and EPP group coordinator as well as spokeswoman on the European Parliament's Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee. She also served as Tánaiste from 2016-17.