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 Power: Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA)

Labour Party

To follow up my launch of the female members of the Socialists and Democrats and European United Left – Nordic Green Left groups in the European Parliament as part of my Women in Power project, I am presenting today a set of profiles from the Greens/European Free Alliance (Greens/EFA). This group, which compromises a large number of French and German MEPs from Bündnis 90/Die Grünen (Alliance 90/The Greens) and Europe Écologie respectively, also includes three women from the United Kingdom.

At 30, Franziska Katharina Brantner from Germany is one of the youngest female members of the European Parliament. Despite her age, however, she already has an extremely impressive CV. Before becoming an MEP in 2009, she was a consultant for the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), where she helped to design a European action plan for UN Security Resolution 1325. After this she worked for the Bertelsmann Foundation consulting on EU foreign policy issues. Franziska was for a short time a research fellow at my own university, Oxford, in the European Studies Centre at St. Antony’s College, having graduated in 2004 with a double diploma in Political Science.

Another young and highly impressive woman MEP is Marije Cornelissen from the Netherlands, who sits alongside me in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality. She has been a forceful anti-discrimination campaigner, and was even Director of North Holland’s Anti-Discrimination Bureau. Like me, she has a strong background in women’s rights, having been Chair of the Feminist Network of the GreenLeft between 1996 and 2001 and a parliamentary assistant in Brussels from 1996 to 1997 where she followed the Committee on Women’s Rights.

Swedish MEP Isabella Lövin has rather a different background, having spent most of her career in the media industry. She received a diploma in Radio Production from the Dramatic Arts Institute in Sweden in 1994, and went on to work as a radio producer and a reporter of debate programmes on the Swedish channel P1. She has also edited several high-profile magazines. Her strong writing and researching skills have brought her numerous successes, including 14 different prizes in Sweden for her book Tyst hav (Silent Seas) on the European Common Fisheries Policy.

As ever, you will see in these profiles a group MEPs embodying a wide range of talents, which have been manifest both in and outside the world of politics. I sincerely hope that you enjoy reading their profiles, and that they provide a useful reference point for learning more about women in the European Parliament.

Women in the Economic Crisis

Labour Party

Osnat LubraniThere is no denying that the current economic crisis has had a hugely damaging effect on the lives of individuals, families and businesses, both in Europe and beyond. Media reports flood in daily with stories of companies going bankrupt, of rising unemployment, and of families’ lives being ruined. Yet the effects of the crisis go deeper still. Indeed a reality that is frequently overlooked in media reports, but which I believe must be highlighted, is the gendered nature of the crisis. This downturn is having a disproportionately negative impact upon the lives of women, and in turn it is undermining the achievement of gender equality in Europe.

While at present there is little official data on this subject, the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) has been working hard to ensure that the real impact of the crisis on women is adequately recognised and understood. I recently read a summary of UNIEFM’s findings written by Osnat Lubrani, who is Director of UNIFEM’s Liaison Office in Brussels. Lubrani has been working for the organisation since 1997, and has a strong background in women’s rights. She was previously UNIFEM’s Regional Programme Director for Central and Eastern Europe, and she also played a key role in establishing the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women, which is managed by UNIFEM. In her assessment she talked frankly about what the crisis really means for women and how their lives will be altered by it.  Some of the facts and figures she put forward are deeply concerning.

The sharp focus on redundancies and bankruptcies in industries dominated by men, such as construction, has led to the mistaken assumption that men have been hardest hit. Yet, as Lubrani rightly pointed out, women are the largest force for economic growth in the world today. They contribute to household incomes more significantly than ever before. While this is undoubtedly something to be praised, it also means that women are being more severely affected now than they were in previous recessions. Falling sales have hit textile industries hard. In Bulgaria alone 44,000 people have lost their jobs. 96 percent of these are women, primarily from the garment industry. Women are grossly overrepresented in part-time and insecure work. Yet part-time jobs are frequently left out of employment statistics. UNIFEM predicts that up to 22 million women worldwide may lose their jobs before the crisis ends.

Reductions in public expenditure are also having a notably adverse effect on women, since they are typically the main recipients of state services that are gendered, such as childcare, reproductive health and education. Girls are more likely than boys to be pulled out of school. Some may never return. Girls’ health is an area of particular concern, with predictions by the World Health Organisation that there will be between 200,000 and 400,000 additional deaths each year as a result of the crisis. In times of hardship women often choose to forgo private healthcare in favour of public, with the result that many are failing to receive the care and treatment that they so desperately need.unifem

I strongly agree with Osnat Lubrani’s observation that global responses to the crisis cannot simply mean jobs for men and welfare for women. The current downturn provides a window of opportunity for us to rethink old economic assumptions, such as the outmoded notion of men as the ‘family breadwinners’. If we do not act now, then we risk undoing all the hardwork that has led to women’s increased participation in the labour-market. Yet women should not be viewed simply as victims in the crisis. They must also be at the forefront of efforts to resolve it. Only with the help of women themselves will we be in a strong position to overcome this economic crisis.