Women have benefited hugely from Europe. It has not only been Westminster, but very often Brussels, that has pushed through legislation to protect women’s rights, safeguard their choices and enhance legal protection at work, and we must not forget this.
Women have been hit hardest by conservative policies throughout Europe: while the crisis initially hit the manufacturing, construction and finance sectors, which are more male dominated, cuts to public sector jobs and to essential services to support women’s lives are now having a dramatic impact on the female population.
In Britain, women are paying three times as much to bring the deficit down, even though they still earn and own less than men (recent statistics published by the Fawcett Society say that women earn on average 14.9% less than men compared to 16.2% less in Europe). And let us not forget, this crusade is led a cabinet with three times more men than women in it.
UK female unemployment is at its highest for a generation, with older women hit by an 18.5% increase in unemployment since May 2010.
A 31% cut in funding for women’s refuges and specialist advice is threatening the safety of women and girls. Meanwhile, half a million street lights have been turned off due to cuts to council budgets, leaving many women feeling unsafe walking home at night.
Cuts to childcare facilities and services – 401 Sure Start centres have been shut down – endanger women’s independence.
It is not just about living standards. This return to kitchen sink policies affects the way women are perceived and perceive themselves too: due to the austerity measures, many families fall back to a traditional model of care, with a male breadwinner and mothers who find it too expensive to go out to work.
Recent reports from the European Socialist Party and the European Trade Union Confederation highlight that the cost of childcare is rising in Britain, where fees are amongst the highest in Europe, only topped in Switzerland. I am proud that the Fabian Women’s Network has joined forces with the Resolution Foundation, Progress, IPPR and many other organisations to call for affordable childcare as a key pledge for Labour’s manifesto in 2015.
Europe has done a lot for women, securing maternity rights, equal pay and paid holidays. Programmes like Daphne II have provided crucial funds to tackle domestic violence and abuse.
It is now time to put women at the heart of a pan-European action plan for growth. Europe is crucial to Britain because, if we want to stand tall from Beijing to Washington, we need to stand tall in Brussels too.
But Europe needs to change, to focus on jobs and growth, a revitalised industrial plan and investment in technology and the green economy to reverse the failed strategy of austerity.
Women can drive all the above. This is why I think the European Socialist party is right to advocate for the appointment of a specific Commissioner for Gender Equality and Women’s Rights to lead on this as of 2014.
The European Socialist Party is also proposing a new Gender Pay Gap Audit to check whether all Member States are engaging in reducing gender pay gaps, crucial to empower women financially.
It is also time for member states to meet the 2010 European Council recommendations – that countries should strive to provide childcare for at least 90% of children between three and six, and at least 33% of children under three (targets very far from being met here in Britain).
Finally, as argued brilliantly by Seema Malhotra (http://www.progressonline.org.uk/2013/05/22/women-mean-business-2/), greater access to entrepreneurship for women could lead to a dramatic increase in the number of small and medium sized businesses, so vital to our economy. The European Investment Bank, which has just seen its lending capacity increased, can also play a key support role to women in the EU.
A plan for Europe with women at its heart is what we need to get Europe working again, and get jobs and growth flowering in Britain too.
We will be discussing all this with Zita Gurmai MEP, President of PES women, on Friday 31 May from 6pm at the Labour Party HQ, in an event co-organised by the Fabian Women’s Network and the Labour Movement for Europe.