Women May Lose Out in a Bigger Europe

Apr 20 2004

Stefania Bianchi

BRUSSELS, Apr (IPS) – With EU enlargement just days away, women’s groups and human rights campaigners are campaigning to raise awareness of the impact that a larger Europe will have on women’s livelihoods and gender equality.

The European Union (EU) will take on ten new members (Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia) May 1.

There will be �contradictory consequences� of the EU accession process for gender equality in a number of these countries, says the non-governmental organisation WIDE (Network Women in Development Europe).

�Unequal distribution of family responsibilities between women and men, low awareness of gender equality issues by government officials, female poverty, gender inequalities in the labour market, under-representation of women in decision-making structures, and limited access to financial resources� continue to persist in many countries of the region, the NGO says.

Each accession country is required to adopt the EU’s acquis communitaire, or EU laws, as they become members of the bloc.

WIDE says this acquis has contributed to the creation of institutional bodies and legal mechanisms that support gender equality objectives, but says that the EU accession agenda �with its increased emphasis on privatisation, economic efficiency and the transition to a market economy, has resulted in the aggravation of social and gender equalities.�

The group says in a statement that �theoretical commitment of national governments in the accession countries to gender equality is not always translated into concrete policies. At the same time, certain candidate countries are still lagging behind in the adaptation of the acquis communitaire on gender equality.�

The development network says it is primarily women with a �certain educational background� who will gain from EU enlargement policies.

â€?It must be ensured that especially poor women and single mothers won’t be further marginalised in the accession process, but there will be specific policies and actions established to ensure their empowerment and an enabling environment including access to employment opportunities, education and economic resources,â€? information officer at WIDE Barbara Specht told IPS Tuesday.

�We perceive the EU enlargement process as a unique opportunity to create more gender equality,� she added.

WIDE has carried out a series of studies on the situation of women in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic and Poland. The studies found serious issues around reproductive rights in Poland, female poverty in Bulgaria, and domestic violence the Czech Republic.

In Poland the study says women are still responsible for the majority of domestic and reproductive tasks. Only two percent of children below three years of age attend nurseries, and only 37 percent attend kindergartens. WIDE says that the insufficient provision of affordable childcare is detrimental to women’s economic independence.

In Bulgaria, which is not among the ten new members but is due to join the EU in 2007, higher education does not automatically lead to higher wages for women, the study says. The report says 71 percent of women earn below the national average (580 euros/700 dollars a month), compared to 56 percent men.

In the Czech Republic, WIDE says the police do not have the authority to intervene in family disputes, while doctors are not obliged to report a suspected act of violence within the family.

WIDE is calling on the European Commission, the EU executive, to ensure �concrete policies� arising from strong political commitment.

â€?We feel that there is space for improvement as far as enforcement and monitoring of gender mainstreaming policies is concerned, or the distribution of EU funds to support women’s organisations or women-specific projects,â€? Specht said. â€?The studies further emphasise the need for increased collaboration between national governments and EU institutions.â€? The European Commission says it is doing all it can to address women’s rights in the new EU member states.

�Besides monitoring legal alignment, my services have provided, and still continue to provide financial support in the framework of the Phare programme in view of building gender equality institutions and the capacity of implementing the gender equality acquis in the acceding and candidate countries,� says Gunter Verheugen, EU commissioner for enlargement.

�In general, we have always reminded that the gender equality perspective ought to be taken into account in the programming of all Phare activities,� he added.

The Phare programme is one of three pre-accession instruments financed by the EU to assist accession countries in preparing to join the bloc. (END/2004)

“Other News” is a personal initiative seeking to provide information that should be in the media but is not, because of commercial criteria. It welcomes contributions from everybody. Work areas include information on global issues, north-south relations, gobernability of globalization. The “Other News” motto is a phrase which appeared on the wall of Barcelona’s old Customs Office, at the beginning of 2003:â€?What walls utter, media keeps silentâ€?. Roberto Savio

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