The Fight for Gender Equality and Against Gender-Based Violence: European Perspectives 2015

The recently elected Co-Chair of EQUO, Rosa Martinez, has left her six and four-year-old children at home with the grandparents in Bilbao this week, while attending a meeting organised by the Greens in the European Parliament entitled ‘The Fight for Gender Equality and Against Gender-Based Violence: European Perspectives 2015’.

The 39-year-old politician knows from personal experience what balancing work and family life means, and the difficult choices that women have to make. Jumping straight to the point, she started our conversation by saying that"… when it comes to reconciliations, it always refers to women and never to men.” Her comment is blunt and in reaction to one of the first actions taken by the new European Commission; To indefinitely put on hold a directive which extended parental leave because it was seen as "too expensive."

Just how important is the extension of maternity leave?

Certain structures surrounding women are in place, that must change. The usual argument is that if a woman stops working to care for her family, then it’s her own personal decision. And should she not want to get involved in politics, that is also her own personal decision. It is however not so black and white, because the reality is that social structures have influence on the decisions that women take. In general, they have less income, are more at risk of falling into poverty, and are more likely to receive a lower pension. You cannot blame women for their role and the space they occupy, but need to understand how the mechanisms of inequality work.

For instance?

To begin with, public opinion is predominantly masculine. Men have the stronger voice, and these voices are repeating that women cannot better organise themselves or bargain with their partners for a full career. Moreover, there is a hypersexualization of women in the media, and in many regards, violence is trivialised and quasi-accepted. In the meantime, I ask myself what the institutions are doing about it, as there appears to be a complete lack of political will to disseminate information or educate about gender equality.

Numerous steps have however been taken to promote gender equality. How far should we go with legislation?

The thing is that it’s not only about legislation, but the issue needs to be explained more widely. After the 2011 attacks, an effort was made to raise awareness about certain restrictions put in place in order to ensure our safety, which included to some degree a loss of rights. The reasons why we should give up a small part of our private sphere for the common good have been argued in every possible, because ‘personal’ is in a certain way also ‘political’. Measures against gender inequality haven't really been accompanied by a communication campaign or explanation. Why not? Because there is no intention of doing so.

Has Europe given enough importance to the issue?

One of the founding principles of the European Union is non-discrimination based on gender, even when women in many countries were not even entitled to vote at its inception in 1957. Moreover, institutional importance was given to the topic of gender equality by placing it within the remit of DG Justice and not with Social Policy. When it comes to promoting or legislating equality, political majorities in the European Council and Parliament block these forward-looking measures, and this is where the problem lies. Europe does have limited powers, but failed policies on getting more women on company boards and extending parental leave do particularly stand out.

With the economic crisis, the issue seems to have been moved to the background?

We are in a context where gender equality is receding on the political agenda, and across Europe, ministries and agencies working on equality have been liquidated. It is very unlikely that the new majority in the European Parliament and Commission will prioritise equality policies. on the contrary, they state that there are more important problems to deal with. This is not an issue for 50% of the population, as inequality also has effects on the wider economy.

Have women been more affected by austerity measures?

Yes, of course! It is however very difficult to know exactly to what extent, due to the fact that it has not been measured. Budgets need to be assessed from a gender perspective, because nothing can be seen as gender-neutral. What we do know is that female unemployment has increased; that funding for plenty of good initiatives that were already underway was stopped; and that public services focusing on family care were seriously cut. In Spain for instance, the dismantling of services has contributed to making invisible, from an economic perspective, a very feminised profession: The care industry.

Spain is however recognised as one of the countries with the most advanced legislation on gender in Europe …

Spain does indeed have progressive legislation on the issue, and this can be attributed to the first term of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero. The question is however related to how this legislation is being implemented and whether it is actually resulting in equality. It is possible to have a very good legislative framework, but laws and policies need appropriate resources to be implemented effectively. A very clear example of this is the prevention of violence against women.  It’s all very well and good to have a great legislative framework, but if there isn’t the appropriate budget to carry it through, it’s all worth nothing in the end. The two go hand in hand.

Isn’t there enough social pressure to change these political decisions?

We live in a time of regression in the equality between men and women, and this is why we need to fight for it even harder. There is a point when we need to consider a very fundamental question: What do we want to achieve? Equality has a price, both financially and structurally. Are we prepared to pay for equality, and if so, how much are we willing to pay?

There are new political structures on the left that have chosen to present gender-balanced lists. EQUO is one of them. Are obligatory quotas the way forward?

Equality is a fundamental principle in EQUO’s way of doing politics, and this was based on experience. Women participate in politics less than men do, not only in political parties, but also in social movements, because remember, policy is also shaped by movements. Women are smaller in numbers, have fewer responsibilities, and are less visible than their male counterparts. This is not a coincidence! Feminism taught us that there is no neutrality in the dynamics of society. It is important to highlight female profiles that can both be a reference to, and defend, the interests of others who suffer inequality simply for being women.

Can gender-balanced lists solve the problem?

They are a good solution to an immediate problem. Women represent half of the population, but the fact is that they are less present. If we really want to make fair policies then we must have women on board. This is exactly what we at EQUO promote, not only through lists and the co-leadership positions, but also in other forums of participation within the party. The best example of this is our EQUO Red Mujeres (EQUO Women’s Network). If we don’t apply equity in our internal operations, how can we ask to implement these policies elsewhere?

There was a very lukewarm reaction from the left when Syriza formed a government without a single female minister …

I personally feel that the reaction of certain parties was very disappointing, and even more so was Syriza’s original decision. Are they insinuating that country such as Greece couldn’t find qualified women to lead a ministry? Or are they purposely not trying to find them? When they say that "the priority is to get Greece out of the crisis", do they mean that a government with women wouldn’t be able to do so? Their arguments do not hold water! The symbolic value of a gender-balanced Syriza government would have been priceless, and it is a huge missed opportunity to prove that we challenge the whole system; not only capitalism, but also patriarchy. Take Podemos for instance, who talk endlessly about a new way of doing politics - Look at their leadership however, and you’ll only see men. There is nothing new or progressive about this!

The original article appeared on 08/03/2015 in the Spanish newspaper El Diario (link)

Rosa Martinez, Co-Chair of EQUO, the Spanish Green Party, 
discusses policies that combat discrimination and violence against women.