Why a State of the Union on Women?

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RuthRubioMarinRuth Rubio Marin is Professor of Constitutional and Public Comparative Law at the European University Institute.

Women are half of the population in the world. 94% of Europeans agree that equality between men and women is a fundamental right and, I would even say, a distinctive feature of the philosophical understanding of European citizenship. In spite of this, in many ways the objective of gender equality in Europe remains largely unachieved. Moreover, every topic of political relevance that Europe is confronting including the financial and economic crisis, the challenges posed by migration and refugees, or the rise in terrorist threats has a gender dimension to it because it affects women in distinctive ways. This perspective, however, is rarely put to the front of the conversation. This is precisely what the State of the Union will do.

How are European women fairing in terms of gender equality in the marketplace?

Gender gap on employment has narrowed in recent years. At the same time inequalities within and between Member States have grown and many challenges remain in critical areas. Just to give you a sense let me mention that, according to a 2014 European Commission Report on Equality between Women and Men, in Europe women still account for less than a quarter of company board members, the gender pay gap is at 16% and, even more worrisomely, the pension gap has reached 39% while occupational segregation is still widespread. We have long way to go still.

 What about violence against women? How is Europe doing in the fight against it?

Unfortunately, the prevalence of gender-based violence is still alarmingly high, with a third of women in the EU having experienced physical or sexual violence mostly in the form of intimate partner violence or sexual harassment. Other forms of gender violence are also prevalent and worrisome. For instance, the statistics on victims of trafficking in human beings reflect a very strong gender bias with 80% of victims being women and girls, many of them trafficked for sexual exploitation. In terms of measures to combat the expressions of forms of violence some progress has certainly been made over the last decade at the European level. For one thing Europe now has reliable data with the first EU-wide survey on women´s experience of violence brilliantly carried out by the Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2014. Also, in 2011 saw the adoption of European Directive (2011/36/EU) on preventing and combating trafficking in human beings and protecting its victims. More recently, in the framework of the Council of Europe, we must celebrate the adoption of the so-called Istanbul Convention a Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence which sets comprehensive standards of the matter and which entered into force in August 2014. More needs to be done, especially regarding education and prevention, to make sure that one in three women in Europe are spared the experience of violence.

Europe has been promoting the adoption of laws imposing corporate board quotas together with electoral quotas to empower women. How do you assess these mechanisms? Can they be effective tools in achieving the goal of a fair distribution of decision-making power between the sexes?

The proportion of women on the boards of the largest publicly listed companies is at 20% and only 28% of elected members of national parliaments in European Member States are women, with national governments also composed of 28% women on average. The objective of a perfect gender parity or gender balance in decision-making is therefore still far in the horizon. Because in many countries it has been felt that waiting for decades and decades in the hope to incrementally achieve that goal is unacceptable, fast-track gender quotas are being embraced. Legislated quotas to enhance the presence of women in the legislator and the executive have been spreading around the world, with Argentina being the first country to adopt them in 1991, and are a now a truly global phenomenon. Full parity and not just a minimum threshold of women is becoming more and more the desired objective, with Latin America leading the trend. The idea of parity was born in Europe and Europe has taken the lead in the adoption of gender quotas for company boards. A proposed Directive by the European Commission was presented in 2012 but never saw the light of the day. In spite of this more and more European countries, including Norway, the pioneer, but also France, Spain, Iceland, Belgium, Italy and Germany have passed legislation in recent years. In none of the domains of authority and decision-making has parity been achieved as of yet. Also, it is too soon to tell what will be the effect of the increased presence of women in spheres of power and authority, in terms of the policies advanced, and the ways of exercising power. But I think that the symbolic power of having more and more women in positions of leadership is tremendous precisely because it challenges the notion that these are male domains as opposed to the traditionally conceived female domains such as the family. In my view, however, the effects of these measures will remain limited for as long as a more equitable distribution of care work between the sexes is not achieved in the private sphere.

What are some of the interesting questions that Europe is confronting in the domain of sexual and reproductive justice today?

There are many and they push in different directions. In some European countries, especially in some Eastern European countries, we are watching the limitation of women’s reproductive rights in the name of a new nationalism which narratively seeks to rescue the “traditional” family from pre-communist times. Even in Western European countries, including in the Nordic countries, women’s right to an abortion is being increasingly contested in more or less subtle ways, such the introduction of parental consent requirements or of mandatory counseling preconditions which sometimes have an explicitly dissuasive nature and are often presented as aiming at the protection of women. Conscientious objections regulations sometimes present a huge challenge in terms of guaranteeing equal access to abortion. Technological advances are offering more and more reproductive options, and new reproduction forms, such as surrogacy are being hotly debated in several European countries. Some claims of traditionally discriminated sexual minorities, including intersex and transgender persons are making new inroads and the reproductive and affective rights of gays and lesbians are also gaining terrain in many European nations, as maybe best epitomized by the recent Irish referendum of same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church is actively fighting these evolutions as expressions of what it perceives as a “gender ideology” threatening the family and traditional values across the continent and beyond. So you see that there are many debates concerning sexual and reproductive matter, with progression and regression, contradictions and constant change.

You mentioned that Europe´s refugee and migration challenges have a gender dimension. Can you provide some examples?

Think for instance of the heightened risk of violence and abuse that both refugee women and migrant women experience. Violence, including sexual violence, does not simply occur on insecure routes or shelters, but also in purportedly safe places such as reception centres. Also, language barriers, precarious legal status, limited knowledge of their rights, inadequate access to appropriate jobs and social isolation are some of the factors in increasing the likelihood of immigrant and refugee women to experience violence. From a legal point of view, the problem is not only one of insufficient legal protections against violence but also that when there is a legal response it often focuses narrowly on criminal law. Instead, family reunification and employment legislation applied to migrants and refugees require specific attention. Problematic aspects of family reunification regimes, which often apply to refugees and migrants alike, are for instance the fact that the residence status of the spouse is made dependent on that of their sponsor spouse, or that it comes with limitations in the access to employment. All of this often places women as spouses in a situation of dependence which renders them more vulnerable to abuse. A similar situation can be observed in relation to trafficking and violence against immigrant women workers. While many domestic legal systems have in place criminal laws aimed at preventing and suppressing trafficking and related phenomena of domestic servitude, sexual exploitation and so forth, labour migration regimes throughout Europe continue to impose a strict dependence of migrant workers from employers. This is particularly visible in the regulation of sectors of the labour market dominated by immigrant women such as domestic work and entertainment. In this way the risk factors linked to isolation and to the private character of these employment realms are aggravated by the strict legal dependence from employers imposed by these regimes as a precondition for continuous enjoyment of residence rights. Protection and autonomy enhancing and not just repressive measures are required but often they are in tension with migration policies which often see migrants as a market commodity.

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