One of the themes adopted for next week’s International Women’s Day is ‘make it happen’. More than a century after the first Women’s Day took place, we might ask why it isn’t already happening, why that bedrock of gender inequality is still firmly in place. Thankfully, glass ceilings are – occasionally – broken, but deep-seated beliefs, attitudes and behaviour patterns are still undermining the legal and political advances in gender equality.
What can we do about it?
We could start by standing up together on March 8 to say that we are feminists; all of us; men and women. Feminists believe in equal opportunities for women and men. Feminists believe that ‘gender equality means equal visibility, empowerment, responsibility and participation of both sexes in all spheres of public and private life’. This Council of Europe definition includes everyone. To disagree is to say one sex should have more and be more than the other. How could a reasonable person make such a case?
It is a wonder that so many people are ‘anti-feminist’ – some going so far as to post rape and death threats against feminists on the Internet – that so many people will not say they are a feminist, even if they are, thinking it will make them unpopular or that it is too dangerous, too provocative, or, even, irrelevant.
On International Women’s Day in 2013, 50 activists wrote to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, revealing that women aged 15-44 across the world are: ‘more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria combined’.
Yet, facts and figures such as these somehow fail to register. People have ‘heard it all before’ or insist the main battles have been won.
Fortunately, legal progress is being made. In 2014 the Council of Europe’s award-winning Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women and girls came into force. Described by the United Nations as the ‘gold standard’, it covers: physical and psychological violence, sexual violence including rape, female genital mutilation, stalking, forced marriage, forced abortion and forced sterilisation, sexual harassment and murders dressed up as ‘honour killings’. Now ratified by 16 European countries and signed by 21, monitoring of the Convention is due to start later this year.
The Istanbul Convention sets in stone the principle that violence against women is a human rights violation, probably the most prevalent human rights violation of any time. It identifies violence against women and girls as a symptom of gender inequality. It has already led to concrete changes, including national legislation penalising forced marriage, stalking and female genital mutilation.
But new laws cannot end gender inequality without corresponding changes in attitudes. We have to dig deep to root out sexism and gender stereotypes.
The Council of Europe is lobbying for more women, of all ages and backgrounds, on our screens, for justice systems that are more accessible to women and for girls to be encouraged to study science and engineering. Such changes are the building blocks of gender equality.
Women today continue to face multiple discrimination, with reduced access to social rights and justice, lower pay and, therefore, lower pensions. Austerity measures across Europe have hit women hardest, deepening the feminisation of poverty and cutting services for victims of violence and programmes to re-educate the perpetrators. Why? Because women and issues associated with them are still seen as secondary.
This has to stop. Equality benefits everyone, men too. True democracy is impossible without it. The UN‘s motto for Women’s Day this year is ‘equality for women is progress for all’. So, let’s put a stop to gender inequality. Let’s stop it together.