The last few months of 2014 have seen some important and moving activity on women's rights, and the fight to eliminate violence against women in Europe and world-wide. The international campaign, 16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence which began on November 26th, and lasted until December 10th, gave us momentum for an intense burst of activity. In a formal capacity I am a substitute on the European Parliament's Women's Rights & Gender Equality (FEMM) Committee, but I undertake my work on the portfolio as a full-time commitment, and do not miss an opportunity to champion the cause of gender equality.
On the 10th of November I spoke at the opening of an exhibition at the Parliament in Brussels, hosted by the Socialists and Democrats' Group (S&D) dedicated to ending Female Genital Mutilation in Europe. More than 3 million women and girls undergo FGM every year, and it is estimated that 500,000 women and girls live with FGM in Europe itself. The exhibition, organised by the NGOs GAMS Belgium and Amnesty International's End FGM Campaign, illustrated this chilling reality, and showcased the work of the many dedicated women and men who work to end FGM in Europe. It was a truly moving evening full of personal testimony and shared humanity.
During our Plenary session in late November, the European Parliament's Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought was awarded to the Congolese doctor Denis Mukwege, who has treated more than 42,000 women victims of rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). We had the honour of meeting this very special man, who shared with us his experience, and his call to fight against rape used as a weapon of war. Apart from giving recognition to his incredible story, Dr. Mukwege’s Prize this year highlights the plight of women victims of systematic rape in war zones in the DRC, Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere. It also highlights the need to combat violence against women within Europe, and to view it as a human rights issue generally.
Whilst travelling back to the constituency, I stopped off in London to join women from the NW and across the UK who had gathered to hand in a petition to David Cameron calling for funding for women’s refuges to be safeguarded. 38,500 people had signed the petition, demonstrating the strength of feeling about the importance of these life-saving services for women who are fleeing violence. I also participated in a demonstration outside the Houses of Parliament organised by the ‘Darlo Mums’ who have been protesting against the break-up and privatisation of the NHS. This is not only an important fight in itself, but illustrates the extent to which gender equality is a multifaceted policy issue, and why gender-mainstreaming, which the European Union promotes, is a key policy tool for including a gender aspect into every field of decision-making.
As part of the international White Ribbon Men Against Violence campaign I was also proud to be part of an evening of music, poetry, performance and activism in Preston with both men and women who support our cause.
Back in Brussels in December, I met with Iranian women’s rights activists. Working for the democratic opposition to the Iranian government from the diaspora abroad, they raise the plight of violence and discrimination against women in Iran where there is an increase in violence (including acid attacks) on female students and women who are perceived to be mal-veiled, and prohibition on women from attending public events (volleyball games, for example). Meeting with Elham Zanjani, a young women’s rights activist who was severely injured in an Iraqi army attack on Ashraf Refugee camp in northern Iraq in 2011, brings the reality of these abuses much closer. The leader of the Iranian opposition, Myriam Rajavi, visited the Parliament and met with various MEPs, including myself; I expressed my solidarity with my sisters in Iran, in the fight for human rights, democracy and gender equality.
On another front, I have worked with my fellow Socialist MEP, Marc Tarabella, to raise the importance of women in entrepreneurship in our work on the FEMM Committee, both for gender empowerment and for economic recovery. On the FEMM Committee, we would like to call on the Commission and Member States to initiate and reinforce innovative policies to make it easier for women to enter into business and remain entrepreneurs - be it mentorship programmes, peer networks, online platforms, or European funding. Support for women entrepreneurs in SMEs is a key lever for greater representation of women in leadership positions in society.
During the Parliament’s Plenary debate on violence against women, Ukip’s Margot Parker, in her usual xenophobic style, told the Chamber that violence against women in the UK was caused by foreigners who bring with them trafficking and crime. Tight border controls, she claimed, would end violence against women on our island. This is utterly baseless, deluded, and dangerous. It is only by working together, moving together with open minds, across borders of nationality or gender that we can bring about change, bring more men into the struggle for gender equality, educate to prevent violence against women, and against objectification, and for women’s empowerment and representation. The European Union has done much for women’s rights over the decades, and is set to do much more. The European Parliament has been a champion of gender equality, and by continuing to push on such issues as the Maternity Leave Directive and the Women on Boards Directive, and by placing the fight against gender violence at the top of the agenda, it will continue to lead the way throughout this mandate. It will be a high priority for me in Brussels and back in the North West region.