The 8th March is International Women’s Day, and it’s an important opportunity to reflect on where we are in our fight for gender equality in the UK, in Europe, and around the world.
For those of us facing the UK referendum on EU membership this June, it is also extremely important to reflect on how much the EU has done, and continues to do, to promote women’s rights and gender equality.
For women and men and persons of all gender identities who care about equality and social justice, this is one more crucial reason that the UK must remain a member of the European Union, and lead the way towards a more equal Europe.
Gender equality is one of the core values of the European Union. In the European Parliament 35% of members are women - much higher than the UK Parliament at 22%. If we focus on Labour MEPs, the statistics are even better as 55% of our MEPs are women. However, we still have a way to go to meet Rwanda's standards where 64% of parliamentarians are women!
Throughout its entire history, the EU has been a progressive force, advancing women’s rights non-discrimination, and also LGBTI rights.
From the beginning, the EU pushed for employers to pay men and women equal wages for equal work (well before the UK did!), paid maternity and paternity leave. EU laws on return to work mean that a woman's job must be held open so she can return without loss of status or pay. Many older women will remember the days when getting pregnant meant losing your job.
MEPs have also worked for better rights for agency workers. More than half of agency workers are women, and now agency workers have more clearly defined rights. This means better access to childcare and same rights as permanent staff including pay and holidays.
The EU also guarantees equal rights to a pension. Pensioner poverty is a real problem for women many who have been excluded from company pension schemes because they took breaks to have children or because they worked part time. EU law now prevents discrimination and guarantees equal rights for all social security benefits.
The EU also works constantly on combatting violence against women, including prohibiting harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation. The European Protection Order is in place to protect victims, such as women who have suffered domestic abuse, across Europe. Those who have already been granted protection in one EU country (for example, through a restraining order) have similar protection if they move to another EU country.
The EU has put in place all these things, and more, which positively affect the life of every woman and man in the UK and across Europe.
In the March 2016 plenary session, to mark International Women’s Day this Parliament will vote on a report which I have co-authored on advancing a gender equality perspective across all of the European Parliament’s decision-making. One of the important innovations of the European Union is 'gender mainstreaming' – which means taking a gender perspective in all policy areas and legislation, across all sectors and at all levels. This is yet another important step in our common struggle, for women's rights and true gender equality.
A gender perspective is not always obvious in the policy-making process, unless we make it explicit. For example, austerity policies and cuts to public services have a tendency to impact women more than men.
I have also co-authored a report on the inclusion of gender-equality in anti-policy poverty, to make sure the exclusion of women, or LGBTI persons, and the obstacles they face are addressed.
The current refugee crisis also has a gender perspective: 55% of the refugees that have come to Europe are women and children. They require specific concerns to be addressed, such as protection from violence, proper sanitation, and access to health and education. The Parliament will be adopting another resolution on the situation of women refugees this session, co-authored by a Labour MEP colleague.
Please continue to follow the work that I, and my fellow UK Labour MEPs do on gender equality.
The EU is an important platform for us to advance equality between men and women, and LGBTI persons in the UK and across the world, and I urge you all, men and women alike, to stand up and make that case on International Women’s Day.