Equal Opportunities in the EU

Minister Kivi, Ladies and Gentlemen, Allow me first to thank the BPW Estonia for organising this Congress and for bringing together the whole variety of participants from different sectors and countries to discuss women’s rights and equal opportunities. I have just returned from New York from the UN Special Session on Beijing+5 and I am extremely pleased to be here today as a Member of the European Parliament and former President of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Equal Opportunities. The Beijing+5 process reflects the growing, global awareness about the fact that equal opportunities play a fundamental role in our societies. Women’s rights and equal opportunities have become more important also in the EU’s agenda throughout the 1990s.

The EU’s commitment to equality was confirmed with the Amsterdam Treaty which entered into force on 1 May 1999. The Amsterdam Treaty gives the European Union new obligations, new opportunities and legislative powers to enhance the equality between women and men in all spheres of life. Achieving equality is now seen as one of the principle objectives of the European Union. The most important tool offered us by the Amsterdam Treaty is by no doubt mainstreaming. This means that the European Union is obliged to take a gender perspective into account in all its policies and programmes. So far, this aim has been fairly well achieved in the field of development cooperation. Some progress has also been made in the employment policy, education and research, whereas in some other areas, such as the environment, public health or transport the work is just beginning. The strategy of mainstreaming needs to be combined with specific actions in favour of women. Traditionally, the EU has concentrated on promoting the situation of women in the labour market. We have nine directives, which have shaped the legislation of the EU’s Member States as regards equal pay for women and men, access to employment, equal treatment of men and women in the field of social security, parental leave, and safety and health at work of pregnant workers, to mention just a few. The Amsterdam Treaty acknowledged for the first time the principle that equal pay for equal work also applies the work of equal value.

The judgements of the Court of Justice of the European Communities have had a major influence on the development of Community law, in particular as regards indirect discrimination based on sex. This was seen earlier this week, when the European Commission adopted a draft directive to ban sexual harassment at work. The directive stipulates that sexual harassment is a form of sexual discrimination and thus entails a risk of liability for employers who fail to provide a workplace free of harassment. The EU is also planning to adopt a directive based on Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty. This new anti-discrimination directive should ensure equal treatment for women and men for the first time in matters other than occupation and employment. Since 1982, the European Union has implemented four action programmes designed to promote equal opportunities. A proposal for the Fifth Action Programme for the years 2001-2005 was adopted this week by the European Commission. It is hoped that the new programme will be more ambitious than the previous ones. It aims to tackle gender inequalities in economic, political, civil and social life as well as gender roles and stereotypes. In addition, the Commission plans awareness-raising campaigns, better data-gathering and transnational projects.Despite all these positive developments, we still have a long way to go. Women are still in an unequal position compared to men in many sectors and they face discrimination all over Europe. The problems are largely the same both in the EU Member States and in the countries that wish to join the European Union.

I am now going to take a look at some obstacles in particular in the following three areas: 1) political decision-making 2) labour market and economic life (access to employment, pay gap etc.) 3) civil sphere of life (domestic violence, trafficking of women etc.) Let me start with political decision-making. It is a mockery of democracy that in most countries, there are still only a very few women who stand as candidates in parliamentary, regional and local elections. This is a waste of resources to individuals as well as societies. Gender inequalities affect everyone’s life at home, on the labour market and in other contexts. Without the participation of women in policy formulation and decision-taking, their special needs continue to be underplayed and under-resourced. The number of women in politics is increasing in all Member States of the European Union, but in most Member States, there is still a long way to go to achieve a critical mass of 30 per cent. National variations are huge: In Finland, women make up almost 40 per cent of the national parliament (and in Sweden even more), but the figure is only 11 per cent in Italy and France, and only 7 per cent in Greece. Estonia with its 18 female parliamentarians slightly exceeds the EU average of 17 per cent. The situation is just slightly better in Brussels. In the European Parliament, women now make already 30 per cent of the Members. But in the European Commission, only five out of 20 Commissioners are women despite the demands by the European Parliament that half of the Commission should be female. The European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Equal Opportunities will closely monitor the internal reform plan of the European Commission, the aim of which is to double the number of women in the Commission’s high posts. But even doubling the number is hardly enough considering that only 2,8 per cent of the highest officials (Director-Generals) are women.

The European Commission has stressed its firm intention to play a pro-active role in promoting a more equal participation of women, but so far the Member States have been reluctant to take strong action. A resolution, adopted by EU ministers in 1996, requires an integrated strategy to promote a balanced participation of women and men, but this is just a recommendation. In its draft action programme for gender equality, which was published this week, the Commission plans to conduct awareness-raising activities to voters and politicians on the need for gender-balance both in elected public bodies and within political party structures. It is utmost important that we provide training and encourage women to become politically active. But we also need to assess the influence of electoral systems and legally binding instruments, such as quotas, targets and other measures. In the European Parliament, my Group, the Greens proposed earlier this year that the issue of balanced decision-making should become one of the key items in the current Intergovernmental Conference, in which the governments of the EU Member States discuss the future institutional changes for the European Union. To our great regret, this proposal failed.

Second, we need equal representation of women in economic decision-making. In no other area is the gender gap wider than in the high-level economic decision-making. Women are badly under-represented in particular in the banking sector and in financial and corporate bodies. I can just heartily support the proposal made by the former Norwegian prime minister on introducing quotas for the under-represented sex in companies’ executive boards. I think it is time that a similar dialogue be conducted in the EU with the involvement of top company leaders and social partners. The gender dimension has become one of the four basic principles in the EU’s employment strategy and it has now been mainstreamed across all the pillars. Following the recommendation by the European Parliament, the EU Employment Guidelines now state that all employment statistics must be desegregated to gender. Based on the average of the three most successful Member States, targets will be set up to improve the participation of women in the labour markets. The new guidelines also state that national governments have to offer specialised training programmes for women. This is utmost important in order to close the ever-widening gap in Information Technology (IT) skills. As a woman coming from a Nordic country, I have a reason to believe that economic independence is a central key to gender equality. In most European countries, the employment rate of women is significantly lower than that of men. In order to remedy the situation, the Commission announced this week that it plans to review the tax benefit system to reduce disincentives for women entering the labour market. We also need a legal obligation to provide better facilities for the care of the children and the elderly, thereby allowing women to better reconciliate professional and private life. The segregation of women and men in the labour market remains a major concern in all EU countries, in particular in Nordic countries, in which women’s share of the workforce is high. Women still dominate in caring professions and men in the building and agricultural sectors. We need to continue working towards diversification of education and training. Also the gender pay gap remains high in all European countries, and in some countries, it is even increasing. In the private sector, women are paid on average 25 per cent less than men. Gender-based poverty and marginalisation of women are increasing problems in all European countries. Social infrastructure is declining in many Central and Eastern European countries as a result of the transition to a market-based economy. Many women are obliged to work in the black market.

I would also like to say a few words about violence against women. The European Year against Violence against Women in 1999 paid particular attention to domestic violence by husbands, boyfriends and other acquaintances. The number of women who die at home due to domestic violence is higher than the number of women who die in work accidents. These are appalling violations of fundamental human rights, which no modern society should any longer tolerate. Trafficking of women and children for the purpose of sexual exploitation is another outrageous phenomenon of our time. Two thirds of the half million women who are trafficked into the European Union each year come from Eastern Europe, many of them escaping the increasing economic and social hardship. We need stronger measures and stronger cooperation across the borders to defeat the trafficking Mafia. We also need to protect the victims as well as combat the demand side in the countries of the European Union. As a result of the work done by one of my Green colleagues, Patsy Sörensen, the European Parliament voted last month on a comprehensive strategy to fight against gender-related violence and trafficking of human beings. The European Commission plans to continue with its DAPHNE and STOP programmes, and also to provide support to information campaigns in the countries of origin, transit and destination. The two programmes will be opened up also to the candidate countries of the European Union. Equality policy and enlargement of the European Union As you know, no country will be allowed to join the European Union without accepting the existing legislation of the European Union, including equality law. It is now time to identify possible gaps in the legislation and consider different options to remedy the situation. I have taken note of the fact that the implementation of the Community legislation requires passing an equality law also in Estonia, and the preparation is underway. I hope that it will include the new proposals which the Commission made this week.

Equality should be more than just a slogan. The governments bear the major responsibility in making sure that equality and non-discrimination do not remain just lip-service or empty words in the constitutions, as it is now often the case. The principle of non-discrimination should apply to all legislation, policies and administrative practises. Structures and bodies need to be set up with the necessary human and financial resources to implement the EU equal opportunities rules. Monitoring bodies are also needed, such as equal rights commissions in Parliaments, which can take the overall responsibility in guaranteeing that equal opportunities are integrated in each policy sector. Also the European Union should consider new and efficient ways to help Estonia and other candidate countries to promote women’s rights and equal opportunities. The candidate countries are already now entitled to participate in different community programmes, including those related to equal opportunities for women. A number of seminars and conferences have been organised by the European Union in order to raise the level of awareness in administration and the media of the candidate countries. As a next step, the EU needs to take care that gender-balance is applied throughout the accession process, as regards the composition of committees, delegations, expert groups and other fora involved in the membership negotiations. As a most important thing, perhaps, the European Union should direct more funds for the support of efficient networks of women across the borders. It is unfortunate that the European Women’s Lobby, an extremely useful umbrella organisation, has had to experience constant threat by conservative forces in the European Parliament, who have tried to cut the EU funding and thus the EWL’s budget. The non-governmental organisations act as primary catalysts and awareness-raisers. In this context, a good cooperation and dialogue is needed between Western and Eastern non-governmental organisations, state authorities and international institutions. More support is needed in particular for the training and the work of local authorities that need to implement a great deal of the legislation. Furthermost, we need to change the culture and mentalities of our societies from bottom-up. My message to those men who have already understood the importance of gender equality is: Please explain your male colleagues what mainstreaming and equal opportunities are. Please do convince your male friends that our societies need a proper partnership between men and women. I wish you every success with this work.

BPW Xth European Congress on 8-10 June 2000, Estonia Concert Hall, Tallinn