This Sunday (8th March 2015) is International Women's Day (IWD), an annual celebration that once began as a Socialist political event over a century ago. This is an opportunity to commemorate the economic, political and social achievements of women all over the world: past, present and future. It's also importantly the time to raise our voices about the stark reality of violence and injustice that continues to exist for so women and girls across the globe.
Since its inception in 1957, the European Union has been fundamental to the huge gains made in improving the lives of women in Europe and beyond. As a female Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and in solidarity with IWD, this week I want to ask: what has the EU done for women? And importantly: what more can we do?
Establishing equality in the workplace and closing the gender pay-gap is one of the founding principles of the EU. Women currently earn on average 16% less than their male counterparts and are more likely to be in part-time work or unemployed, putting women at a much greater risk of poverty in old age. Only 17% of company board members are female, with a tiny four per cent sitting as chairs of boards. This is despite the fact that girls tend to do better at school and that 60% of university graduates are women.
Part of the problem is the existence of an entrenched gender differentiation in many job sectors and the undermining of traditionally female-dominated occupations as 'unskilled' and thus lower paid. Inextricably linked to this categorisation of 'male' and 'female' roles is the greater burden of childcare and family responsibilities borne by women, which demands greater work flexibility and means women are much more likely to have interrupted careers.
The EU believes that women should be able to be both mothers and have careers, and thanks to EU legislation mothers have the right to 14 weeks maternity leave, of which two are mandatory. The European Commission has proposed raising this to 18 weeks, while MEPs want to see a 20 week minimum to ensure that women have the time, space and financial security they need in the weeks immediately before and after giving birth.
Furthermore, all women in the EU have the right to equal pay for equal work. With vast differences of pay between Member States this principle is still some way from being achieved (the gender pay-gap in the UK is 3.1% higher than the European average), however the Commission and MEPs are working hard to ensure its proper implementation in Member States.
'Europe 2020' is the Commission's 10-year strategy for growth, supported by millions of euros of EU funding, which seeks to build on the significant gains for women of the past decade and reach 75% employment for all European citizens. Several schemes have been put in place to encourage more women into new green and innovation sectors and into occupations traditionally considered 'men's work'; to promote female entrepreneurship and self-employment, and to increase the number of women in managerial roles. An 'Equality Pays Off' project between 2012 and 2013 held 39 events across member states in order to raise awareness among companies about the 'business case' for gender equality and equal pay.
The EU recognises that women are key to filling the skills gap currently plaguing the European jobs market and could encourage greater innovation and productivity in the workplace. With the dual challenge of an ageing population and declining birth rates, support for mothers and families is vital if we want to create a buoyant and resilient European economy, founded on a skilled and fulfilled workforce.
The EU also knows that equality between men and women will be merely a pipe dream unless we take serious measures to end gender-based violence. A third of women in the EU have experienced physical or sexual violence, irrespective of age or background. Two thirds of women in professional jobs or top management have experienced sexual harassment, and up to half a million women living in Europe have been subjected to Female Genital Mutilation (FGM).
A Europe-wide strategy has been set up to combat violence against women, with EU institutions dedicated to gathering better information on female-targeted crime in order to form a more targeted response. Victim support is a priority, and Member States are obliged to provide minimum standards of rights, legal recourse, support services and protection from further violence. Last year I joined with our 3 dedicated North East Police and Crime Commissioners to address and coordinate multi-agency responses to modern slavery and human trafficking within the UK and across Europe. Two major EU funding programs - Daphne III and Process - provide support and assistance to European and national grassroots organisations, NGOs and networks working in this field. In 2013 the Commission allocated €2.3 million to projects working specifically to combat FGM.
The UK Government's blatant disregard for victims of domestic violence demonstrates just how essential this EU support is if we are to realise our goal of a safe world for women and girls to live in. An ideological commitment to austerity cuts and outsourcing of local services has stripped women's refuges of funding and left them struggling to survive, with several being forced to close since 2010. Women's Aid has to turn away 155 vulnerable women and their children away every day. This comes despite the conclusions of Parliamentary enquiries in 1975, 1992 and 2008 that provision of national refuges must be a priority of any government committed to tackling domestic violence.
As Labour MEP for the North of England, I call on the UK Government reverse its failures in protecting women, and in the meantime ensure that EU funding reach the services and women that need it most. International Women’s Day is not just a day for us to reflect on our progress but a day to remind the world of the work yet to be done – that is the message that I am taking up the European Parliament.