In order to talk about the backlash against women’s rights and gender equality in the EU, the European Parliament’s Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality invited among other the initiators of the Austrian Women’s Advocacy 2.0. The assessment makes a depressing reading; however, the subsequent vote on the resolution gives a glimmer of hope.
Due to the backlash in respect of gender equality, sexual health and reproduction work in some EU Member States, the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) has formulated a Resolution, which names these developments and urges Member States to take countermeasures. Representatives of feminist organisations from different EU countries were invited to exchange information and to talk about their experiences and their analyses.
Lena Jäger and Christian Berger, initiators of the Women’s Advocacy 2.0 addressed three major areas, where women all over Europe have been facing a backlash. First, the worsening of their economic position, which has affected women and minorities since the 2008 economic crisis due to neoliberal policies in the guise of austerity policy. Whilst and during the economic and financial crisis, austerity measures have hit industries, mainly dominated by women, whilst governmental stimulus packages such as the scrapping premium benefited male dominated sectors. The share of undiscovered unemployment and involuntary part-time work is many times higher for women than it is for men. Women’s rights are not only restricted in respect of economy and labour market, but also with regard to their physical integrity, as the initiators are analysing in more detail in a second point, in which they emphasise that the majority of violence was gender-based. The sad result of a study published in 2014 would be that every 3rd woman in Europe had experienced physical and/or sexual violence and that according to statistics, every 20th women had been raped. Lena Jäger and Christian Berger also explained that right-extremist and right-wing populist governments such as in Hungary, Austria and Poland would cement patriarchal rights. Examples being Poland’s attempt to implement tougher restrictions on abortion, Austria’s case of hate speech against Sigi Maurer and Ireland’s scandalous verdict in a rape case. As a third sector of backlash, they have identified that women’s rights were not human rights. They cited the development concerning the political participation in Hungary and Austria as a bitter example, as the Austrian government for example had abolished the six-week public consultation period for legal acts. Admittedly, this would not only concern women; however, due to the fact that these were underrepresented in political committees, they were hit harder by the withdrawal of participation. But also the new Working Time Act (12h-day) and the financial cuts of organisations, which support women’s rights, have a negative effect on participation and with that on the rights of women.
Katrine Thomasen of the Center for Reproductive Rights, commented that all EU Member States, due to signing the international law, were bound to gender equality, which would also include a ban on regresses. Hence, states were not allowed to take measures, which would lessen the level of protection in respect of reproduction work or sexual health (e.g. access to contraception) and they were not permitted to create new barriers. Here, she sees countries clearly violating their duties.
Virginija Langbakk of the European Institute for Gender Equality believes that the issues (1) human rights are women’s rights and (2) have to be discussed at the same time, as violations against (1) were clearly visible and it was therefore possible to take measures; however, this was not the case if gender equality was rolled back. It therefore needed clear standards and key figures as regards to gender equality to be able to measure progress and regresses and to put up a fight.
The rapporteur responsible, João Pimenta Lopes (GUE/NGL) emphasises that he not only wanted to name the problems, but that he would also like to establish their causes. He demands concrete measures, which have to be accompanied by investments in social issues, strengthening of employment relationships, improvements of living conditions and appropriate sex education. Even if the FEMM Committee with 17 votes in favour and 5 votes against has set a clear signal for a progressive women’s policy, the bitter taste remains that the Resolution only gives recommendations to the Member States. It is now up to existing and new women’s rights organisations and protest movements to make themselves heard and to exert pressure at all levels.