EIGE's Director Carlien Scheele delivered this speech at an event organised by EIGE and UN Women Germany on 15 October 2020. 

In March this year, EIGE published a 25-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action. From the economy to climate change, we examined how the situation of women had evolved since 1995.

I couldn’t wait to go to New York and present it at the 64th Commission on the Status of Women. I wanted to share our findings with all you working on the frontline of women’s rights and hear your ideas on how we can move forward.

Sadly, as we all know, that didn’t happen. The rapidly spreading virus meant flights were grounded and meetings cancelled. 

Luckily, since then, we have worked out how to meet each other virtually and share our knowledge -- despite the circumstances. A testament to human creativity and adaptability, which enables me to finally share our latest data with you. I hope it will be useful when you put together your calls to action later today.

Let’s start with the economy. Our review of the Beijing Platform for Action showed that long-standing inequalities persist in the EU. Women are less likely to be in paid work than men, with 67 % of working age women in employment, compared to 79 % of men. That’s an important difference because when the Europe 2020 strategy was adopted 10 years ago, EU leaders aimed to have 75 % of the working age population in employment by the end of 2020. While men have surpassed this target, millions of women are missing from the labour market.

So, where are the women? Well, our data shows that 7.7 million are currently kept out of the labour market due to caring responsibilities. That’s more people than the entire population of Bulgaria. As our societies age and more people require care, an increasing number of women may find themselves unable to take up paid work. Currently, this employment loss costs the EU economy some €370 billion each year. As our economies try to recover from the Covid-19 pandemic, it would be a missed opportunity not to take action to bring more women into the workforce. 

What action is needed? We need both legislative and cultural change. Persistent gender stereotypes can hinder the effect of even the best measures. Over the last 25 years, many EU member states have expanded parental leave for fathers. However, take-up remains extremely low as caring is still considered women’s work. Before the crisis, flexible working arrangements such as telework were frequently used by women to combine work and family life, with little impact on men’s contribution to caregiving. As many of us were pushed into the domestic sphere and telework to try and contain the virus, it was still women who reported the most difficulty juggling work, home-schooling and care. If a shift towards telework does indeed end up being one of the legacies of the pandemic, I hope the extra time fathers spend at home will encourage them to take on a bigger share of the care load. This would be the most powerful way to end stereotypes about who provides care.

We also need to value care in the labour market. In the EU, 86 % of personal care workers are women. Although we know such jobs are essential, the Covid crisis really drove this point home. Yet, across Europe, the pay and working conditions of these jobs frequently do not reflect their importance, which continues to get bigger as our societies age. 

Our 25-year review of the Beijing Platform for Action identified the lingering impact of the 2008 global financial crisis, and the economic decisions that were made in its wake, as a continuing contributor to inequality between women and men. Austerity fell particularly heavily on women, who tend to be poorer and rely more on public services, including childcare. To be able to accommodate their caring responsibilities, women are more likely to be in temporary, part-time and precarious work. Unfortunately, this puts women first in line for job losses as the economic fallout of the Covid crisis starts to bite. As we face another economic test, I hope we are able to learn from the lessons of the previous crisis, so as not to further deepen inequality. 

Another test we are facing is how to put an end violence against women. As people were confined to their homes to contain the spread of the pandemic, many countries registered spikes in domestic violence reports. This was a test several countries met rather well. I have no doubt that rapid measures taken to protect women, such as the digitalisation of tools to facilitate reporting, saved lives. It is important to note that we can all make a difference. A report we release next month shows that witnesses of intimate partner violence usually want to intervene – they just need the confidence and tools to be able to do so.   

However, violence against women is not a problem limited to crisis times. Globally, women face the most danger from people they know. While men make up the majority of homicide victims, women are most likely to be killed by someone they know.

The most wide-ranging measures to prevent violence against women are laid out in the Istanbul Convention. Although it has been signed by all EU Member States and ratified by a majority, some countries are not fulfilling its requirements. For example, across the EU, the overall number of bed spaces in women’s shelters has decreased since 2013 and is only about half that required under the Convention. The importance of such support in saving lives during the pandemic should make their financing a political priority.  

I am sad to see a backlash against this document in some countries. The principal aim of the Convention is to protect women from violence, through practical measures and the eradication of negative stereotypes that fire violence. It is in no way a threat to the family. I think the chair of the Council of Europe’s expert group on countering violence against women, Marceline Naudi, has said it best: “If there is violence in the family, it’s the violence that destroys the family.” In the face of mounting opposition, I am proud that the European Commission continues to be committed to acceding to the Istanbul Convention.

Opposition to the Istanbul Convention is, of course, one of the symptoms of a bigger malaise.  For some years, a backlash has been building against gender equality and women’s rights. A sense that women had gained enough, or even too much in comparison with men. This has started to feel as a threat to the established power structures. This is despite the fact that according to last year’s Gender Equality Index, women in the EU have not even reached the three quarter mark when it comes to equality with men.

The backlash can be seen in the 'gender fatigue' that has been growing over the last decade, with our research showing that the commitment of EU countries to gender mainstreaming – which is a legal obligation for all signatories of the Beijing Platform for Action - has weakened since 2012.

The backlash can also be seen in the emergence of so-called ‘anti-gender’ movements, which have led to women’s rights being rolled back in a number of EU Member States. In some countries, access to sexual and reproductive rights has been restricted through the introduction of preconditions for women to access legal abortion services, an increase in doctors refusing to perform abortions on grounds of conscience, and limits on emergency contraception.

Civil society organisations on the frontline of this attack on women’s rights have faced hostile action from governments, including the criminalisation of some of their activities.

This is unacceptable. The work of civil society organisations – your work – is vital to ensure the voices of the most marginalised are heard by those making decisions about their lives. I would like to re-affirm EIGE’s commitment to your work, and stress that we are here to provide you with support as we challenge this backlash together. We are continuously gathering data on the different situation of women and men from different backgrounds in the EU, and measuring the impact of policy decisions on their lives.  We are also preparing a forensic assessment of the stories told by those opposing equality, and putting together our own narrative. We are looking forward to sharing this with you next year. 

I strongly believe that the creativity and adaptability we have all shown in light of these unexpected times will serve us well in the coming years. As countries put together recovery measures to lift us out of the crisis, they will need: sex-disaggregated data to measure the different impact of the pandemic on women and men, acknowledgment of the importance of care in our economies, gender-balance at the table where decisions are being made. All this is feasible.

Even though inequality persists and there have been some setbacks, it is also important to note that overall there has been progress since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted a quarter of a century ago. This gives a reason to be hopeful for the future.

I will now hand over to Elisabeth Keuten, who will tell us about the work being done by the next generation of activists.

Thank you.