Women and European Union
By Ms. Julie Ward, United Kingdom
European Parliament, Parliament’s Culture & Education Committee, the Regional Development Committee and the Committee on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.
On February 14th I danced alongside women and men of all ages as part of the global action One Billion Rising which aims to raise awareness of violence against women and girls (VAWG). It is estimated that one in three women will be raped or beaten in her lifetime – that is one billion women. Here in the UK it is estimated that a woman is raped every six minutes. Across the EU one in ten women has experienced some sort of sexual violence since the age of fifteen. Specific forms of gender-based violence such as Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) are also increasingly prevalent with an estimated 500,000 women and girls in the EU living with the consequences of this inhuman practice.
I came into politics because of VAWG. Like many I was horrified by the brutal rape and subsequent death of Jyoti Del Singh on a bus in Delhi in December 2012. After years of being a ‘keyboard warrior’ that single incident galvanised me into action. I signed up as a volunteer co-ordinator for One Billion Rising and I offered myself for selection as a European parliamentary candidate, winning a third seat back for Labour in the NW region last May, helping to rid parliament of Nick Griffin, the fascist leader of the BNP, in the process. Whilst I campaigned on a broad platform of social justice and equality for all, women’s rights remain a primary concern and unsurprisingly I now sit on the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality Committee (FEMM).
I have joined the global forum Women in Parliament and am a founder member of the European Caucus of Women in Parliament. These are cross-party organisations concerned to support women like me who have taken the step into the political arena and become elected representatives. I am proud to be one of eleven women out of twenty-strong European Labour delegation, demonstrating the party’s strong commitment to getting women elected. However, the gender balance of parliamentarians globally is shockingly poor with approximately 20% being women. Interestingly, Rwanda comprises nearly 65% women in its parliament, a figure that shames even our country where only 148 out of 650 (less than a quarter) are women.
This lack of visibility in public life is, I believe, one of the reasons why VAWG persists. When women are invisible objectification becomes the norm and this creates the culture in which VAWG is both endemic and unchallenged. We have to tackle the problem in every sphere of life, working with grassroots organisations and campaigning groups such as Women’s Aid, 50:50, Everyday Sexism and others, encouraging women to put themselves forward for elected positions.
It is no coincidence that women are rising up and speaking out in the run-up to the forthcoming general election where the result will play a part in determining our future EU membership. Women should be concerned as the EU has always been an engine pushing for gender equality across the continent. When the European Communities were founded in 1957, the principle of equal pay for equal work was written into the Treaty of Rome. Subsequently the idea of gender equality encompassed social issues. By the turn of the century, the EU was given powers by the Member States to tackle gender-based discrimination. The European Charter of Fundamental Rights, which is legally binding across the EU, states that gender equality must be positively promoted.
These ideas were translated into European law, applied to all Member States, for example, equal pay, equal treatment in the workplace, equal treatment in access to goods and services, and protection for part-time workers. As early as 1992, a European Directive provided a common standard for maternity leave conditions, as well as the right to return to work.
VAWG is addressed by European norms for victim protection. European crime coordination and border agencies deal with trafficking and prostitution. The European 2020 programme aims to increase women’s representation with an ambitious target of 40% women on publicly-listed company boards.
In the FEMM Committee we are working towards ‘gender mainstreaming’: applying principles and criteria for gender equality in every policy field, from economic guidelines, to job creation, education and more. I work closely with fellow Social-Democrat MEPs, who aim to be trail-blazers in the field, often co-operating with other political families from across Europe for the common good. A new Maternity Leave Directive and a Women on Boards Directive, as well as the elimination of violence against women, are all current priorities for FEMM.
I have worked to promote women in entrepreneurship, and am currently working to ensure women are included in green job creation. I have also been fighting for women’s rights world-wide, speaking out against rape as weapon of war and working with campaigners to end FGM.
As we approach the General Election British women, and all those who care for gender equality and social justice, must consider deeply the implications of a government that may take us out of Europe: would we want to risk losing such an ideological engine for social change? When I danced in solidarity with one billion women on February 14th I was doing so believing in the core European value of gender equality.
Who is Julie Ward?
Julie is a Labour Member of the European Parliament for the North West of England, covering Cumbria, Lancashire, Mersey side, Cheshire and Greater Manchester. As such she is a member of the European Parliamentary Labour Party and, in turn, part of the second largest group in the European Parliament, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats.
Julie serves on the Parliament’s Culture & Education Committee, the Regional Development Committee and the Committee on Gender Equality and Women’s Rights.
Julie is an active campaigner for equal rights and social justice, most recently organising local events for One Billion Rising, the global movement to raise awareness of violence against women and girls.