International Women’s Day 2010

Labour Party

Today, as you may or may not be aware, is International Women’s Day. It is an annual event which seeks to celebrate the cultural, economic, social and political achievements of women. It comes, this year, just one day after the announcement at the Oscars that Kathryn Bigelow is this year’s winner of the much-coveted best director trophy, for her film The Hurt Locker – she is the first woman in the history of the Academy Awards to win this prestigious title. It also comes on a day when a law in India is to be put forward before the legislature, requiring that a third of seats in the country’s Parliament must be reserved for women.

It has been argued in the past that International Women’s Day should be abolished altogether on the grounds that if we have to mark such an event it must mean that we do not have equality. Two years ago Viviane Reding, European Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights and Citizenship, agreed. If full gender equality had already been achieved, then perhaps Commissioner Reding would have a point. Yet despite the fact that 53% of the population of Europe are women, they unfortunately occupy just 34.9% of seats in the European Parliament. Politics continues to be dominated by men, and as Gordon Brown pointed out today the numbers of women in senior management posts across Europe remains dismally low.

There are, however, many changes to be proud of. Since the last parliamentary term, there has been an increase of 4.7% in the numbers of women who are elected to the European Parliament. The number of women chairing the various committees and sub-committees in the European Parliament has increased by 50%, while the number of female Vice-Presidents of the parliamentary committees has risen to six out of 14. Within the European Parliament there are several organisations and bodies with a mandate to tackle gender equality, including the Equality and Diversity Unit, which seeks to devise, monitor and implement equality and diversity policies within the General Secretariat of the European Parliament. In addition to this, the European Parliament boasts an Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities (COPEC), which has the task of proposing and monitoring gender equality measures in the European Parliament Secretariat.

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2010, several special events have been planned within the European Parliament. I am pleased to say that this year looks set to be as action-packed as ever. As my colleagues and I will be busy voting in Strasbourg this week, most of the events have been scheduled to take place in Brussels in one week’s time. Today, nevertheless, a debate on violence against women has been organised between MEPs, the Association des Journalistes Parlementaires Européens and representatives of women’s associations. On 16 March, Jerzy Buzek, President of the European Parliament, will be opening a debate on the theme of violence against women, and this will be followed by the inauguration of the contemporary art exhibition ‘Women & Women’, organised by José Manuel García-Margallo y Marfil MEP. Several key political figures have been invited to speak at the Parliament on this day, including Bibiana Aído Almagro, Spain’s Minister for Equality, and Inés Alberdi, Executive Director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM).

Gender equality and gender mainstreaming have become priority issues for the European Parliament, and International Women’s Day is an ideal occasion for thinking about how these aims can be achieved. You will see from my now complete Women in Power project that representation of women in politics has advanced a great deal in recent years, and although there is still a great deal more to do to improve their status, we certainly have a lot to be pleased about. Women in Power was launched with the aim of drawing attention to women’s achievements, and I believe that it has been successful in doing this. Let’s just hope that by International Women’s Day 2011 there will be even more women occupying powerful political roles than there are at present.

Women in armed conflict

Labour Party

This week, in the run up to International Women’s Day on Monday 8th March, a series of special events were put on in the European Parliament focusing on a broad range of women’s rights issues.  Notably yesterday, we had a debate entitled ‘Women in armed conflict – the example of the Democratic Republic of Congo’.  In recent months I have written a number of blogs addressing conflict violence against women.  This is an issue which is discussed regularly in the European Parliament, given that countries across the globe tme and again look to the EU as a source of hope in the fight against such violence.

As many of you will be aware, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has been in the grip of a grave humanitarian crisis since the country was devastated by a five-year long civil war between 1998 and 2003.  During the conflict, government forces supported by Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe fought against rebels backed by Uganda and Rwanda. Despite the brokering of a peace deal in 2003 which brought the war to an end, another type of war has continued unhindered in the DRC: the war against the female population.  In a country where the political situation remains extremely fragile, acts of violence against women, including rape, injury and sexual slavery, have been ignored and allowed to take place on a massive scale.  This has devastating consequences for both the women who are affected, and also for society at large.

Efforts have been made at the international level to address violence against women in conflict states.  Indeed the focal point of yesterday’s discussion was the progress on the ground since the introduction of Resolution 1325 ten years ago, in which the UN Security Council acknowledged women’s needs in armed conflict and women’s role in peace and security.  A representative from the European Commission was present at the debate.  He explained that a number of strategies have been adopted since 2000, including prevention, support for victims, and strategies to fight against impunity.  In November 2009, the United Nations launched a comprehensive strategy to tackle violence against women in the DRC, which was supported by the European Union. Then, in January this year, Margot Wallström, who was previously European Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, organised a conference in Brussels on ‘Women, Peace and Security: Empowering women in peace and conflict’.

Despite these efforts at the international level, to date only 12 EU Member States have adopted national action plans for implementing Resolution 1325.

One woman who has lived through the country’s violence spoke at the event yesterday.  She highlighted that impunity is one of the most important issues for female victims in the DRC.  Since the establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002, the fight against impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity has come a long way.  However, as she correctly pointed out, most of the crimes against women committed during the civil war in the DRC took place before 2002.  There have been some convictions against the Congolese army thanks to external pressure by Hillary Clinton and other high-profile figures, including the sentencing last year of ten Congolese rapists by a Congolese military court.  Yet the judicial system in the DRC remains weak, and the capacity to accommodate all convicted perpetrators simply does not exist.

The speaker stressed that women who have been raped are victims not just of their crime, but are also victims of exclusion within the community.  Effective action is needed by local communities to ensure that injured women are treated with compassion, and are not simply rejected by their families and by their peers.

There can be no doubt that the European Union has a huge role to play in tackling violence against women in conflict-ridden and post-conflict states.  I strongly believe that the EU has a duty to encourage as many of its members as possible to adopt national actions plans for implementing Resolution 1325.  It should also ensure that in its missions to conflict states, a greater level of expertise is available to help victims of rape and other acts of violence.  Rape continues to be used as a weapon of war in civil conflicts across the globe, and the EU is one of the key actors with the capacity to significantly reduce the damaging effects of this upon victims and communities.

Women in Power – European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) (EPP)

Labour Party

This week sees the launch of the largest group in the European Parliament, the European People’s Party (Christian Democrats) (EPP), previously known as the European People’s Party-European Democrats. It is a group which, like the others, is made up of many successful women who come from numerous walks of life and have enjoyed a variety of different experiences. At least two of the women in the EPP group, including Danuta Maria Hübner of Poland and Sandra Kalniete of Latvia, were Commissioners before entering Parliament.

Finnish MEP Sari Essayah has a particularly diverse background. She became a member of the European Parliament in 2009 after working as Party Secretary of the Christian Democrats in Finland from 2007 and as a member of the Finnish Parliament from 2003. Like many of the women profiled in Women in Power, she has spent time working in academia, and is an active member of a several well-known organisations such as Amnesty International and the Finnish Red Cross. However, unusually for an MEP, her career began in the sporting field. Sari achieved great success as a race walker, winning the European Championships in 1994 and the World Championships in 1993 (pictured).

Monica Luisa Macovei, from Romania, also achieved major successes before entering the European Parliament, but in a rather different field. She, like Sari, sat on her national Parliament; in this case as Justice Minister from 2004 to 2007. Her major achievement was to play a lead role in implementing the justice reforms that helped Romania to join the European Union and fight corruption in the country. She is a founding member of Transparency International Romania, and has conducted research on gender in Romanian law and on violence against women. Monica has also been a civil society activist for political reform, democratisation and human rights in post-1989 Romania.

Spanish MEP Christina Gutiérrez-Cortines was too for a time a member of her national Parliament: as Minister of Education and Culture. For much of her career she worked in the cultural arena, and this is of particular relevance to my work as I am currently the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) coordinator on the Culture and Education Committee in the European Parliament. Christina was Director of cultural events at La Verdad newspaper in Murcia from 1989 to 1995, and has also been Director of Cultural Events and Evening Courses at the University of Murcia. She has a doctorate in Art History, and has been a researcher in art and architecture, urban planning and the history of urban development, as well as in the use of new technologies in the field of art history.

In the run up to International Women’s Day on the 8th March, I will be launching the remaining women members of the European Parliament on my website. I would very much welcome comments on these or any of the other profiles in the Women in Power collection.


Labour Party
The mediation workshop

The mediation workshop

Violet Maddison (aged 91!) and Marina Cantacuzino founder of the Forgiveness Project
Violet Maddison (aged 91!) and Marina Cantacuzino founder of the Forgiveness Project
Unsung Women, Haringey Women’s Forum International Women’s Day event was even better than similar days in previous years.  Held in CONEL, the College of North East London, over 500 people, nearly all women, came to see the stalls, take part in workshops and generally have a good time.
I would like to thank the organisers for inviting me to speak at the presentation of the Unsung Women awards.  I spoke to them about women in public life and how more of us need to come forward.  Two of the women sharing the platform provided excellent role models, Councillor Nilgun Canver, member of Haringey’s Cabinet and on the Labour list for the European elections and Clare Kober, Leader of Haringey Council.  Nilgun chaired the awards presentation and Clare gave an inspiring talk about how she came to fight for women’s rights.
It was good to see Cllr. Sheila Peacock  a stalwart of the Labour Party, and a veteran Councillor who has been Mayor.

In addition to the sheer numbers, what really struck me about the day was the diversity of the women there.  Young and old, black and white, and everything in between shared food and fun.  It was a great example of London at its best and showed just how much women can do. Just to end by thanking Janine Coke, Eve and all the hard working organisers for the lovely flowers.  I don’t often get gifts for speaking and it was a really nice gesture.
Michele Stokes & Hulya Degirmencioglu (Organisers), Nilgun Canver (Euro Candidate), Gwenda Owens, Cllr. Kaushika Amin, Gertrude Walker, Cllr. Sheila Peacock

Michele Stokes & Hulya Degirmencioglu (Organisers), Nilgun Canver (Euro Candidate), Gwenda Owens, Cllr. Kaushika Amin, Gertrude Walker, Cllr. Sheila Peacock


Labour Party

To celebrate International Women’s Day, the European Parliament held a colloquium with the media on women and elections to the European Parliament.  I must say it’s good to see the Parliament is taking its own elections seriously, which is more than may be said for almost the entirety of Great Britain.  For your information, they are on Thursday 4 June at a polling station near you.

Moderated by the BBC’s excellent television presenter, Shirin Wheeler, the event was kicked off by the highly respected Vice-President of the European Commission, Margot Wallstrom.  Margot has done excellent work to get more women into the European Parliament, who currently make up 31.08 percent of MEPs. Incidentally, this compares to 24.3 percent of MPs in the House of Commons.

Margot is also a blogger.It will come as no surprise that Margot supports quotas to ensure women are selected and elected to representative office and her campaign for more female MEPs is called 50:50.  I very much support Margot on this.  Enough women will not be chosen without concrete action. 

Margot Wallstrom
To this end I have always supported all women shortlist for Westminster seats and the zipping we have for Labour candidates for the European Parliament.  When challenged that women would be seen to have got there only because of a quota system, Margot said this was infinitely preferable than continuing having men selecting men.  Hear, hear.

The analysis of women’s voting behaviour and intentions produced by Eurobarometer following Margot’s introduction did not produce any real surprises, though it was interesting to hear that 70 percent of women want 40 percent of MEPs to be female.  I believe it is extremely important that we take on board the kind of data on women’s concerns shown in the Eurobarometer reports.  Women’s votes will be crucial in not only winning in Europe but also in winning the next general election.  Labour won in 1997 and 2001 because women came to us.  Take that away and we will not do nearly as well in 2010 (or 2009 depending on your preference).  The Labour Party and the Government really must understand this and act accordingly.      



Labour Party

Tomorrow I will be attending the Socialist Group Conference in Brussels to mark International Women’s Day (8th March).

My Austrian colleague Lissy Gröner, MEP is Socialist Group Coordinator for the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality she said to me:

‘Socialists want to highlight the glaring under-representation of women on election lists, particularly in view of the upcoming European elections in June. We socialists and social democrats are acting for change from quota to parity.”

I agree with that as only 30% of current MEPs are women. Some EU countries are taking action to address this problem, such as Spain and Belgium which now has an equality law, but others are lagging behind. Our British Conservatives remain the worst performing major group with only 1 woman out of 29 MEPs. Labour has 8 women out of 19 MEPs.

The Socialist Group, is steadily improving its gender balance with a 41.4% representation in the current parliament, compared to the main right wing party, the EPP, which has only 24% women among its ranks.

Zita Gurmai, Hungarian Socialist MEP who is President of PES Women, shares my concerns about women in the recession, she said: 

“In the current recession, there’s been a steady stream of male executives – bankers and captains of industry – gracing our TV screens, saying ‘sorry’ for their dismal management that’s brought companies into ruin and left governments and citizens to foot the bills amounting to billions of euros. There’s an urgent need for more women in senior management posts sharing in the decision-making with their male counterparts, working together.”

I agree and will let you know more about how the Conference goes.