Clare Moody

MEP for the South West and Gibraltar

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Women's rights deserve to be debated in the European Parliament

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Appalling, depressing, revealing; call it what you will, an economist at the New York Times has done the maths and the results are shocking, but not surprising: more large companies are run by men named "John" (5.3%) than by women (4.1%).

 

This is just one more in a long line of statistics that highlights how entrenched gender inequality is in our society, and another important reason why earlier this month in the European Parliament my Labour colleagues and I voted in support of a range of measures to advance women’s rights and gender equality: on pay, in the workplace, on reproduction and to tackle violence against women. 

These measures are outlined in a progress report on gender equality in the European Union, prepared by my S&D group colleague, Marc Tarabella MEP.

The context of this report is key. Since the financial crash of 2008, across Europe women have disproportionately suffered at the hands of austerity-bent governments. In Tory Britain alone, research by the House of Commons Library showed that of the £26 billion revenue raised by tax and benefit changes since 2010, 85% has been taken from the pockets of women. 

As my Labour colleague Jude Kirton-Darling MEP wrote for International Women’s Day, the European Parliament has already done so much to advance the cause of women’s rights - particularly in the workplace - but, now as much as any other time, it must go further and faster. 

Despite the European Commission's Europe 2020 strategy target to have an equal number of men and women on large company boards by 2020, female representation currently languishes at just 17.8% [insert source]. Women can "lean in" all they want, but that glass ceiling will not yield For many years, perhaps decades, based on current progress.

Of course, company boards are but the tip of the gender inequality iceberg and there is a danger in focusing too much on those at the top. This glacial rate of change cascades down through the working world; simply appointing more women directors will no solve many of the problems women face in work.

Last week, the ILO revealed that the pay gap between men and women worldwide has scarcely improved in the last two decades. Since 1995, it has closed by just three percent, with women’s’ earnings now, on average, 77% of men’s. In fact, in December last year, The Fawcett Society reported that, in 2013, the gender pay gap widened for the first time in five years. For the ILO the figures mean "we have years, even decades, to go until women enjoy the same rights and benefits as men at work."

Mr Tarabella last authored the progress report in 2009. Since that time, the number of women in work has increased just 3% (to 66%), whilst many more women find themselves limited to insecure, part-time jobs and temporary contracts.

All of this points to an urgent need for greater action. That is why the Tarabella report is both timely and so important; it’s about leveling the playing field.

Nevertheless, not everyone appreciates that urgency or supports a leveling of the playing field. In a debate about the report last week, UKIP MEPs (who later abstained on the vote) appeared incensed that the European Parliament would want to advance the cause of gender equality. Step forward UKIP MEP Bill Etheridge, who derided Labour MEPs’ support for the report as an attempt to paint a “bleeding-heart” on a “superstate power-grab.” 

Conservative MEPs meanwhile voted against, joining MEPs from Europe’s far-right groupings in the process. The evidence suggests they voted against on the grounds that the report advocates improved access for women and girls to sexual and reproductive health services, indicative of a growing Tea Party tendency inside the Tories.  

In a recent interview, Mr Tarabella reiterated his belief that a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion is a “fundamental right”, and is one of the principle issues that must be addressed in order to advance gender equality. 

Too often, we are in danger of taking what we assume to be fundamental rights for granted. The right to contraception; the right to choose; the right to live free from the threat of violence: these rights are fundamental and they should be universal. The fact that this isn't the case means these are precisely the types of issue that the European Parliament is best placed to debate and to legislate on.

Take, for instance, the issue of female genital mutilation. I have written previously about this barbaric practice and about the incredible work by my young constituent, Fahma Mahmoud, who, at 17 years old, has led a national campaign to promote awareness of the risk of FGM in British schools, to thrust the issue, from the darkest corners of our communities, onto the front pages and into the public consciousness. 

I have similarly written about how important it is that the EU and its member states accelerate efforts to eradicate this abhorrent practice, and take a global lead on this. 

That leadership is vital. In 2012, 37 countries signed the Istanbul Convention, which set out a range of actions intended to combat violence against women. To date, only 16 signatories have ratified it. Those yet to do so include Great Britain, leaving vulnerable women and girls at risk of abuse.

As Marc Tarabella said recently, “We can talk about it for 30 years, but to see real change we need binding measures.”

We should celebrate that the situation for women has improved so much over recent decades and we owe that to the victories of our mothers and grandmothers.  But we cannot settle for where we are, we are a long way from achieving equality. We owe that to our daughters.  

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