Written by Rosamund Shreeves,
From its roots in early 20th century women’s activism, International Women’s Day – 8th March – has become a time for celebrating women’s achievements and a time to measure and commit to parity, both globally and in our own European region, countries and communities.
The interconnections between the global and the local are highlighted in the themes chosen by the United Nations and the European Parliament to mark this year’s event. At the Parliament, the focus is on the situation of the refugee women and girls arriving in Europe seeking protection – bringing the global to our doorsteps. At the UN, the theme, Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It up for Gender Equality! stresses the need for local action to meet the goal of a gender-equal and sustainable planet. The new Sustainable Development Goals agreed internationally in 2015, including the specific goal on achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls, apply as much to the European Union as to other regions across the world.
As the EU enters a new period in its gender equality policy, which will stretch from 2016 to 2019. it will need to focus on the two specific targets set under SDG5:
- ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere; and
- eliminating all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres, including trafficking and sexual and other types of exploitation.
Global and regional measures of gender inequality show that on both counts, there is still some way to go.
Global Measurements of Gender Inequality
Indices setting the EU in a global context make for sober reading. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report for 2015 shows that no country in the world has closed the gender gap and that while the world has made progress overall over the past decade, ‘stubborn inequalities’ remain. As a region, Europe is ranked in second place, behind North America, with four EU countries (Finland, Sweden, Ireland and Slovenia) in the top 10 of the 145 countries assessed. However, EU countries are widely dispersed and by no means all towards the top of the list. Two EU Member States are listed amongst the six where prospects for women have deteriorated over the past ten years. Whilst the Nordic nations are still role models for their ability to achieve gender parity, the momentum for some of the biggest absolute and relative improvements of the past ten years has come from countries lower down the rankings, including Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Nepal. The index also shows that progress towards closing gender gaps has not been even across the four areas covered by the index – education, health, the economy and politics.
Globally, the picture on educational attainment is mixed. Whilst some countries have already reached parity, 22% have wider education gaps than they did ten years ago. On this measure, Europe is a fraction of a percent away from full parity. However, the ranking masks a number of concerns. Within the EU, the issues are far more complex than simply gaining access to education for girls, as remains the problem in many developing countries. Inequalities persist because of the educational choices that girls make, which may prevent them from achieving the potential they show earlier in education. The under-representation of women studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, which are likely to be at the forefront of a changing economy, is particularly worrying. Read more analyses in the Infographic on Women and education in the EU and the overviews of Women in science and research and Education and training of women.
According to the Global Gender Gap Index, Women’s economic empowerment remains one of the areas where the gender gap is widest. The pace of progress towards labour force parity and wage equality has stalled worldwide since 2009 and globally, women are only now earning the amount men did in 2006. If this trajectory continues, it would take the world another 118 years – or until 2033 – to close the gap. On this measure of gender equality, Europe comes slightly behind North America, Latin America and the Caribbean, having shrunk the gender gap by roughly 6% over the past decade. The updated gender equality index published by the European Institute for Gender Equality provides further detail on the situation of women in Europe’s labour markets. The 2015 report notes that the gender gap in labour force participation closed between 2005 and 2012, but this was due to a slight increase in women’s and a decrease in men’s employment rate. Women continue to be overrepresented in lower paid sectors, including the domestic and care economy, where conditions and legal protection are a concern. A disproportionate burden of unpaid care and domestic work, lack of childcare and other work-life balance options continue to constrain women’s employment. For more on these issues, see the briefings Trends in female employment and Invisible jobs: the situation of domestic workers, Women and domestic work in the EU, and the Infographic on Maternity and Paternity Leave.
Across the world, the area where progress has been fastest, but where the largest gender gaps remain is politics and power. Here, Europe is reported to have fallen behind the curve, and is currently performing below Asia and the Pacific. As our infographic on Women in parliaments illustrates, a number of national parliaments across the world have a higher proportion of women members than the European Parliament.
Eliminating violence against women
Violence against women remains an issue across Europe, as elsewhere in the world, and an underlying obstacle to women and girls enjoying their full human rights. It is perhaps here that the links between the global and the local are currently most starkly revealed. In the building refugee and humanitarian crisis, sexual and gender-based violence is one of the most pervasive threats to women fleeing conflict and persecution and using ‘irregular’ routes into Europe. Some will have experienced or risked harmful practices, such as FGM, in their countries of origin and many are at particular risk of falling victim to human trafficking on their journeys. Within Europe, it is also women who are targeted by traffickers for sexual exploitation and also women who bear the brunt of domestic violence, as revealed in the survey issued by the Fundamental Rights Agency in 2014. The results of this survey are now included in EIGE’s gender equality index for the first time. For further analysis, see the briefings on Gender aspects of migration and asylum in the EU, The gender dimension of human trafficking, Arbitrary detention of women and children for immigration-related purposes, Honour Crimes, The Istanbul Convention: A tool to tackle violence against women and girls, Violence against women in the EU: state of play, and the overview of sources on FGM.
Reflecting on the new Sustainable Development Goals, the European Women’s Lobby has concluded that the EU is at a turning point: “it can choose to lead the way towards a gender equal sustainable future, or to ignore the Beijing Platform for Action for 20 more years”. Let us take heart from the women’s rights activists who came together in Beijing in 1995, seeing the challenges and the connections, and who forged ahead to set an ambitious global plan for action on gender equality. And let us help to create a Europe that will be fit for the women refugees, showing such incredible courage and survival skills on their journeys to reach it.
Relevant EPRS publications in the area
- Women and education in the EU, infographic
- Women in science and research, keysource
- Women and domestic work in the EU, keysource
- Education and training of women, keysource
- Trends in female employment, briefing
- Invisible jobs: The situation of domestic workers, briefing
- Maternity and paternity leave in the EU, infographic
- Gender indexes – an overview, at a glance
- Women in Parliaments, infographic
- Gender aspects of migration and asylum in the EU: An overview, briefing
- The gender dimension of human trafficking, briefing
- Arbitrary detention of women and children for immigration-related purposes, briefing
- Trafficking in Women, keysource
- Violence against women in the EU: state of play, briefing
- Combating ‘honour’ crimes in the EU, briefing
- The Istanbul Convention: A tool to tackle violence against women and girls, at a glance
- Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in EU, keysource
- Gender-responsive budgeting: Innovative approaches to budgeting, briefing