What happened to the EU gender dimension?


The 2nd Annual Conference of the Women Associations from the Cyclades Islands (Greece) was held on the 17-18th April in Mykonos. Amongst the topics that were covered at the Conference was the contribution of the EU to gender issues. It was mentioned that the EU record on gender is a mixed one.

The idea of gender equality has a long history in EU integration as it has been included in the Founding Treaty of the European Union. Throughout the years, the increasing influence of the EU as a legislative and political body also had an impact on gender policies. The EU may be boastful about some of its achievements, most notably in the field of employment, such as EU legislation to fight labour discrimation, imposition of equal pay and promotion of equal opportunities at work. Furthermore, due to elite interaction at the EU level, various norms have been also transposed to the national level (e.g. issues of proportional representation of women, measures of positive discrimination etc).

However, gender related achievements in other policy fields such as health and social policy remain modest. The resources that are attributed to gender related projects are still minimal and have a limited impact upon the amelioration of the position of women in society. Although progress has been achieved through the inclusion of the gender dimension in various EU funded projects, much remains to be done in order to improve effectiveness and performance.

The results after all these years of European integration still remain unsatisfactory. Poverty amongst women remains higher than that of men in the EU. Women are less paid than men and obstacles still exist when it comes to women moving up the hierarchy ladder in their own perspective professions. Issues of human trafficking, violence and prostitution still need to be tackled successfully in order to better protect the female population. Gender mainstreaming has to be introduced in all EU policy areas so that issues that affect women could be taken into account in all policy fields. Furthermore, a lot more needs to be done in order to achieve higher levels of equality in rural and insular areas.

Unfortunately, rather than attributing higher importance to all the above mentioned issues, the gender agenda has been downgraded from the list of EU priorities in the last ten years. The optimism of the early 1990s gave way to the passivity of the Barosso Commission and the lack of enthusiasm on behalf of most EU member states regarding gender issues. Europe gradually became more conservative as reactionary political forces took over in many of the EU member states. The growth of religious fundamentalism, populism and extreme right wing movements brought back a reactionary discourse in EU politics which does not contribute to the feminist cause.

Things got worse with the current economic crisis which hits women disproportionately. The cuts in public services affect them twofold. On one hand, cuts in public service jobs threaten an employment area which has been so far friendly in providing women with relatively safe jobs. Cuts in other services such as the provision of health and childcare also render women lives difficult as they have to assume a disproportionate burden of care for the children and the elderly. It is also proven that in times of crisis, incidents of violence against women increase.

The gender agenda needs to be always at the forefront of EU decision-making. In times of crisis ‘gender justice’ becomes even more imperative. The EU has an ethical duty to attribute to women what they really deserve. Thus, it is important to keep up the momentum on issues that affect women -which anyway constitute more than half of the total EU population. At times where EU popularity reaches historic lows, EU high officials should not forget that the effort to make the EU more popular also passes through the promotion of gender issues.

Vasilis Margaras