The European Institute for Gender Equality Officially Opens

Anna Wilkowska-Landowska

The European Institute for Gender Equality is a new European Union agency intended to support EU Institutions and Member States in promoting gender equality.

On 20 June 2010 in Vilnius, Lithuania, the Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė and Eva-Britt Svensson (Swedish Member of Parliament) officially announced the opening of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). It is the first EU agency that is based in one of the Baltic States of the European Union.

The European Institute for Gender Equality is a new European Union agency with a special focus on gender equality. It is to support the EU Institutions and Member States in promoting and assisting in realization of gender equality, fighting discrimination based on sex and raising awareness about gender issues. EIGE collects and analyses data on gender issues and develops practical tools, especially to include the perspective and needs of women and men in policy areas, to encourage and exchange best practices and dialogue among interested parties, and to raise awareness on equality between women and men among EU citizens. The European Gender Institute is to form a ‘knowledge centre’ (dealing with research, data collection, technical assistance to policy-makers, dissemination of information), serving the goals of the EU gender policy and should be open to governmental and non-governmental, institutional and non-institutional target groups.

The Lithuanian President expressed great satisfaction over the fact that the best gender equality experts from across Europe would work and share their knowledge in Lithuania and that their work, practical and theoretical research would contribute in a major way to joint efforts towards achieving real gender equality. European Commission Vice-President Viviane Reding, Commissioner for Justice, Fundamental Rights, said the Institute would also help raise the visibility of gender equality issues. EIGE Director Virginija Langbakk commented that the Institute’s role is not only about disseminating information on gender equality but also includes involving public figures who care about equality problems in various forms of cooperation.

It has been quite a few years since the idea of setting up a European Institute for Gender Equality came into being in 1995, when Ms Margareta Winberg, the Swedish Minister for Gender Equality, presented a draft proposal for its establishment at a seminar held in Stockholm in June 1999. The process of establishing the body has been rather long. First, in 2000, the European Council recognized the need to raise awareness and promote gender equality.  Then, in 2002, the European Commission undertook a feasibility study carried out under the Community Framework Strategy on Gender Equality (2001-2005). It was concluded that there is a clear role for the Institute to carry out some of the tasks which the existing European institutions do not currently deal with, specifically in the areas of coordination and dissemination of research data, network building, raising the visibility of gender equality, highlighting the gender perspective and developing gender mainstreaming tools.

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After the study was released, no action was initiated towards a creation of the Institute. Hence, the Women’s Rights Committee of the European Parliament concerned by the lack of activity in that area brought the idea of a European Gender Equality Institute back on the political agenda with its Resolution in March 2004 calling to undertake more efforts leading to the establishment of the Institute. In June 2004, the European Parliament published a report on the Role of a Future European Gender Institute. The Report made it clear that specialized technical expertise is needed in the field of equal opportunities and gender mainstreaming for translating the commitments into action. An autonomous Institute allows the mobilization of expertise by Member States, regions in Europe (e.g. experience with gender budgeting in Scotland or in the Basque region), or by local authorities.

In March 2005, Vladimír Špidla, the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, proposed the establishment of a new European Institute for Gender Equality. The Institute came into being when the European Parliament and the Council adopted Regulation (EC) No 1922/2006 of 20 December 2006 on establishing a European Institute for Gender Equality. The Institute was established in May 2007, initially in Brussels and then moved to its office in Vilnius, Lithuania.

Much is expected from the new Institute, and we do hope for an effective agency rather than another “formal” body unable to address the issues it was created to deal with. The fact it was established after years of negotiations could be a good sign here – its role may be more visible within the European community. 

Commentary Abortion

Around the World, Women Are Forced to Justify Their Reasons for Abortion

Amanda Marcotte

A New York Times op-ed raises the question of how liberal an abortion law is if it requires women to justify their abortions. Most abortion restrictions in the United States and Europe are based on the idea that some women are more deserving than others.

In Sunday’s New York Times, Mairav Zonszein wrote a fascinating op-ed about the pointless, aggravating, and insulting process that women in Israel have to endure in order to get an abortion. The procedure is legal there; it’s free for women between the ages of 20 and 33; and 98 percent of women who ask for an abortion get one. To obtain one, however, you must go in front of a committee that is allowed to ask nosy and personal questions.

The committee near Zonszein immediately approved her request, likely because she isn’t married. But, as she notes, women who are married or live in more conservative parts of the country “tend to go through a more grueling, protracted process in which they are questioned further and at times even pressured not to go through with it.” The piece is a nice reminder that support for abortion restrictions has little to do with “life,” and everything to do with signaling to women that our bodies do not truly belong to us.

Overall, Zonszein offers a compelling argument that abortion rights shouldn’t just be about access, but about respecting a woman’s right to dignity and to autonomy over her own body. “Israel’s policy sends a message to women that while the state will facilitate our abortions in practice, it refuses—in principle—to grant us the freedom to make that decision ourselves,” Zonszein writes. She compares Israel unfavorably to other Western countries where “abortion is lawful and largely free of restrictions.”

Unfortunately, it was the one part of an otherwise great piece that wasn’t quite true. In fact, the process of needing to get approval for an abortion is surprisingly common in a lot of Western European countries. In England, abortion is paid for by the National Health Service, but a woman has to get two doctors to sign off on the claim that she will be physically or mentally hurt by continuing the pregnancy. In Germany, it’s a similar story: Women need a doctor to claim mental distress, undergo counseling, and wait three days for the procedure. Same thing in Italy, where a doctor must detail a woman’s reasons for abortion and she has to wait a week to reflect. New Zealand, Finland, Switzerland: Requiring a woman to cough up a reason deemed acceptable enough by third parties is really standard practice. France used to have a similar law, but it was changed last year on the grounds that it’s sexist to have policies that carry the built-in assumption that women aren’t capable of making this choice on their own and need someone else to decide if their reasons are good enough.

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It might seem a bit churlish to complain about these laws, when, in practice, they rarely impede actual access to abortion—something Katha Pollitt rightly pointed out in the Nation in response to a spate of conservatives such as David Frum, Michael Gerson, and Ross Douthat arguing, largely in defense of exas’ law restricting abortion care, that countries like these are more “conservative” on abortion rights than the United States. That is a facetious stance, as Pollitt noted, because it doesn’t take into account how much easier and more affordable abortion is in most of these countries.

There’s something very telling, though, about requiring women to tap-dance a little to earn an abortion, particularly when no one would dare suggest—for good reason—that women have to ask for permission to give birth. It shows that attitudes about abortion are actually shaped by attitudes about sex and gender roles. Women are supposed to want babies, and if they don’t, they’re supposed to be apologetic and do penance for defying their “natural” role.

Meanwhile, in the United States, it is true that women are protected from having to give their reasons for an abortion in the first trimester, because Roe v. Wade decided the procedure is protected under constitutional protections for privacy. Nothing is more invasive of your privacy than forcing you to go in front of a committee and explain how much crying you’ve been doing, or how afraid you are that your husband might find out you’re cheating, or how you just aren’t sure the man you’re having sex with is the one you want to marry. A lot of that may come out in private consultation with your doctor, but private is the key word here. There is no government requirement that you expose this part of yourself to justify your abortion in this country, which is a good thing.

But this idea that women should have to justify their desire to abort is baked right into the debate over abortion access in this country nonetheless. That’s most obvious when it comes to the endless fighting over exceptions to proposed abortion bans: whether rape or incest is good enough to deserve the procedure, or if your life needs to be imperiled. The entire existence of crisis pregnancy centers is built on this belief that women don’t really know how badly they supposedly want this baby and need lots of coaxing and “counseling” to know their true minds. Mandatory waiting periods, mandatory ultrasounds, mandatory scripts full of falsehoods about abortion—they’re all about establishing the idea that women are not good decision-makers about their own bodies and need nosy strangers butting in on this very personal decision.

No wonder we saw so many conservatives trying to praise various European and Israeli restrictions on abortion. It’s not really about the life of the fetus, but about trying to guilt-trip and persecute women for not adhering to their very rigid ideas about what we should be and what we should want. It’s about trying to make us feel like we’re bad or broken if we greet news of a pregnancy with anything but glowing joy and an immediate desire to start painting a nursery. There’s nothing wrong, of course, with wanting a pregnancy and being happy about it. Many women who have abortions, at other points in their lives, experience happy and wanted pregnancies. But that’s the point: Our lives are complex and diverse and don’t fit into narrow preconceptions about what they should or shouldn’t be. And our abortion laws should reflect that, by acknowledging that a woman—not a third party, not a politician—is the expert in her own life and what she needs when facing an unintended pregnancy.

Commentary Human Rights

The Fight for Reproductive Rights in Spain: Our Struggle Is Yours

Carme Chacon

A new bill in Spain threatens to make abortion a crime. This would be a giant step backward for women and for all of Spanish society.

It is hard to believe for many of my American partners as well as for many young Spaniards: in Spain, just 40 years ago, still in the ’70s, in the final phase of the Franco dictatorship, women needed the permission of a man—her father or husband—to open a bank account, sign a contract, or arrange a passport.

It is hard to believe that in many legal aspects women were treated as children, but it was; and divorce was not allowed nor were contraceptives, and women could be convicted in court for adultery or even accused of abandoning their home if they left after suffering abuse from their husband.

The greatest social transformation achieved by the Spanish democracy has been, in my opinion, ending the discrimination that invalidated half the population. Since the adoption of the Spanish Constitution in 1978, women have joined the workforce and taken positions of power—a revolution in all aspects.

Within a year of Francos’ death in 1975, all political parties were legalized, and Spain celebrated democratic elections—a change that was made possible thanks to pressure from citizens and legal reforms promoted by the King of Spain, Juan Carlos I. The political uprising brought forth other changes across all aspects of life, particularly for women. Democracy and the modernization of the country accelerated when, in 1982, the Socialist Party won the national elections with a very broad majority.

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Over the years, women have staged a peaceful revolution in Spain: We were one of the first countries in the world to make fighting against gender violence a major national priority, to end gender discrimination in all fields (even in the military, where women have access to all positions), and to increase by half the number of women holding political positions at all levels (including at central and regional government offices and municipalities). Women are also the majority of the students at Spanish universities.

For years, progress was spectacular in the battle against gender discrimination. Particularly, when Spain became the third country to legalize gay marriage in 2005.

I still remember the pride I felt in 2005 when I led a Spanish parliamentary delegation that was received with a resounding applause by the United Nations Conference on the tenth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on the status of women.

However, many of these achievements, including some as crucial as the economic independence of women, are being threatened by the economic crisis, which began in 2008, and the deliberate actions of the conservative government in power since December 2011.

These crises have affected women and female participation in the labor market, which shrunk by 10 percent between 2008 and 2013. The wage gap between men and women has grown, while the presence of women in high positions of government and business has declined.

The government’s conservative agenda has downplayed the issue of gender violence, despite some very disturbing numbers. In the last ten years, up to 700 women have died in Spain because of domestic violence. And up to 22 percent of women reportedly have suffered abuse at the hands of their partners, according to a recent survey by the European Union. Clearly, this problem persists but rarely appears in Spanish conservatives’ public discourse.

But, without a doubt, the biggest setback we are experiencing, the most disturbing, is the attempt to suppress the right of women to freely terminate a pregnancy. After experiencing years of progress under progressive governments, in 2010 Spain passed a law that bans abortion after 14 weeks’ gestation. This law, similar to those passed in the United States, has reduced the number of abortions practiced in Spain and has significant public support. Also like in the United States, among medical professionals there is a widespread opposition to the restriction on the right of women to safe, legal abortion.

The conservative government now intends to repeal this law and replace it with a new one that would make abortion a crime, except in cases of rape or to protect the life or physical or mental health of the pregnant person. Women, then, are treated as minors in that their decision to terminate a pregnancy must be approved as appropriate by a judge, doctor, or psychiatrist, a humiliating process for someone who already is suffering enough.

According to reports, 90 percent of abortions currently practiced in Spain would be illegal under the law the government wants to pass. The only alternative that a Spanish woman with resources would have is to travel to neighboring countries—Portugal, Great Britain, or France, for instance—where abortion is not a crime. But in a country with 26 percent unemployment and a third of children at risk of poverty, many women would be forced to risk their lives—again, like during Franco dictatorship—in a clandestine clinic.

There is no rational or ethical justification for a change like this. To accept this rule means to accept that some men have the right to decide what women can do with their bodies, that men should protect women and women should obey them, and that men are better able to make decisions about sexuality and reproduction than women. In short, this bill is a giant step backward for women and for all of Spanish society. That is why we must do all we can to prevent its approval.

In ancient Greece, the Stoic philosophers held that each of us lived in two communities: the local community, in which we are born, and the human community, where there are no boundaries and no person is alien to us. Women know this particularly. Without the fight of suffragist women in the United States or Great Britain, in New Zealand or Australia, the right to vote would have been delayed much longer for other nations. Similarly, the example set by a democratic Spain has been crucial for the fight for sexual and reproductive rights in Southern Europe and Latin America.

The battle Spanish women are facing now is a battle against an aggression beyond the borders of the local community. Italian women, for example, adopted on International Women’s Day in March the motto “Io decido” (“I decide”) in solidarity with the Spaniards. Our cause is also the cause of American women, and of all women in the world. We need the support of all women in our struggle. As once said by the first woman deputy prime minister of Spain, María Teresa Fernandez de la Vega, “When a woman takes a step, all women go forward.” Thus, it must be all women together who fight to keep Spanish women’s rights from receding into a dark past.

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