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EU’s admirable gender equality goals facing a crisis

/ Nov 05, 2012 8:05AM / Print / ()

EU’s admirable gender equality goals facing a crisis

The European Union (EU) was recently awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, an announcement met by much criticism. But whether or not the EU deserved the prize, when it comes to how women have benefitted from their country's EU membership it seems there is more to the EU than a currency and crisis.

The EU considers gender equality to be one of its underlying principles. Its founding treaty, the Treaty of Rome (1957), contained an article which provided for equal pay between men and women. However, the principle was not successfully invoked until 1975 when it was used to defend a Belgian flight attendant named Gabrielle Defrenne who had objected to being paid less than her male colleagues as it defied the Treaty.

The European Court of Justice ruled in favour of Defrenne clarifying that the Article was not only applied to the actions of public authorities, but also contracts between private employers and individuals. This case lead to the first European directive on equal pay for men and women in 1975, which explicitly prohibited all discrimination on the grounds of sex related to pay. It also made member states responsible for upholding the directive through "eradicating any discrimination laid down in national laws, regulations or administrative provisions and to inform workers of measures taken in application of the Directive".

Over the course of the next 20 years the Equal Pay Directive was followed by further directives on equal access to vocational training, employment and working conditions. These directives combined with structural funds, such as the European Social Fund (ESF), meant women were able to benefit from vocational training and employment programs.

Despite these measures, and a continual emphasis on equal pay for men and women, there still an average gender pay gap of 17% in the EU. There has been a clear identification of the causes of this continual gap between men and women, such as continuing segregation in the labour market and an absence of women in managerial and senior positions (for example only 32% of managers in the EU are women. Considering there are 27 member states, this is a worry).

On International Women's Day in 2010, the EU released a Women's Charter targeting equal pay, equality in decision making, economic independence and an end to gender-based violence. According to research in line with the strategy, 20% to 25% of European women had suffered physical violence at least once in their lives, and almost half a million women in the EU were estimated to be survivors of female genital mutilation.

The charter pledged to eradicate gender-based violence by developing a comprehensive policy framework to combat such violence as well as using criminal law to eradicate female genital mutilation throughout the EU. This Charter is only a small indication of the social and legal policies developed by the EU to protect women and work towards greater equality. There has also been work towards strengthening existing EU legislation on the trafficking of women and children, as well as a continuing focus on improving women's healthcare and long-term care. And on the surface it does seem these initiatives and legislation, combined with the fact that the most powerful person in the EU right now is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, that women have benefitted from EU social reforms.

However, the reality is that today women are affected by the ongoing Eurozone crisis. Women throughout the EU are facing joblessness, slashed wages and reduced access to public services and healthcare. Let's take Greece, one of the worst hit EU member states as an example; in March this year, 26% of Greek women were out of work while 17% of Greek men were unemployed. Experts have stated that domestic violence is on the rise and this crisis has effectively put legislation designed to implement further equality on the backburner.

The EU put gender equality on its agenda from its inception almost 70 years ago and there has been a consistent dedication to reaching equality between European men and women. Right now, however, the current Eurozone crisis stands firmly in the way of the EU realising this goal.

As admirable as the EU's social reforms may be, until a long-term solution to the Eurozone crisis is reached, gender equality will remain a good intention, not a reality for women in the EU.

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