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Friday, December 8, 2023
Mario de Queiroz
LISBON, Mar 8 2007 (IPS) - In spite of their conquests in the 20th century, and so far in the 21st, women in the European Union (EU) are still a long way from achieving equality with men – a goal unequivocally laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
A detailed study of the situation of women in Europe, on the eve of International Women’s Day, celebrated Mar. 8, leads to this inevitable conclusion, says Portuguese activist Manuela Góis, who researches gender rights in Europe.
Now the top-ranking economic power in the world, in the last 15 years the wealthy EU has gradually become a magnet for the sordid but flourishing business of trafficking in women, the new slavery. Illegal prostitution networks thrive on impunity despite the accusations made by women who were treated as merchandise.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) estimates that four million women worldwide have fallen into the hands of international human trafficking organisations, mainly for the purpose of sexual exploitation. Some 500,000 more are being added to this number every year, of whom one-third are from the former socialist bloc of Eastern Europe.
This globalised trade in human beings grosses between nine billion and 15.5 billion dollars a year, and is the third most profitable illegal activity in the world, after drugs and arms trafficking, according to a comprehensive study by “Visao” journalists Isabel Marques de Silva and Henrique Botequilha which was published last week in Lisbon.
The classic victim’s profile is that of an undocumented immigrant living in fear of being deported and terrified of the pimps who run the trafficking networks. The women are usually sent to brothels in Germany, France, Spain, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece and Portugal.
According to Elisabete Brasil, head of Women’s Union Alternative and Response (UMAR), the victims “have the sense of having been tortured, like prisoners of war or concentration camp internees.”
The trade takes place across borders and across oceans. Spanish night club owners went so far as to open a mega-brothel in Buenos Aires, a real “commercial entrep- t,” where young Latin American women stayed for nine months and then did a “tour of duty” in Europe for three months, the length of a tourist visa, Marques da Silva and Botequilha reported.
Disdain experienced by women who are EU citizens in their home countries is less shocking but still discriminatory, Professor Góis of the “Elina Guimaraes” Feminist Documentation Centre (CDFEG) told IPS.
She dismissed the idea that gender equality prevails in the EU. “Patriarchal societies persist, and male domination continues unfettered, in the public as well as the private spheres. It is not enough for Angela Merkel to have become head of government in Germany, the most powerful country in Europe, to conclude that there is equality between the sexes.”
Góis rejected the oft-reiterated arguments to prove there is parity in the exercise of political power in the EU, based on examples like Merkel, French presidential candidate Segolène Royale, Spanish Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, and Presidents Mary McAleese of Ireland, Vaira Vike-Freiberga of Latvia and Tarja Halonen of Finland.
“Political power parity in the EU is still a mirage,” stated the CDFEG activist, who is also a member of UMAR. The composition of the executive branches in northern European countries and Spain “are still exceptions to the rule in the grey European political panorama,” she said.
Women in positions of power are highly visible, while “domestic violence remains common in many European countries. In the Mediterranean countries, until only a few years ago, it was hidden and silenced, and sexual harassment and sexism are still rarely reported to public authorities,” she said.
Economic power in Europe “is still generally controlled by men, and there are marked inequalities in pay,” she said. However, she recognised that “there are smaller salary differences” in the Nordic countries, Switzerland, and the former socialist countries of central and eastern Europe.
But in Luxembourg, the EU country with the highest per capita income, women working in industry and services are paid on average 55,000 dollars a year less than their male counterparts, according to Eurostat, the EU’s Statistical Office.
Góis criticised other aspects of women’s continuing inequality. “Unemployment rates and poverty levels in Europe are higher among women,” she said.
In effect, average female unemployment in the 27-nation bloc is 8.5 percent, nearly two percentage points higher than male unemployment, which stands at 6.7 percent, according to Eurostat figures released this week.
Góis emphasised that women’s power of decision over their own bodies “is limited because of patriarchal power, whether within the family or exercised by the state. In Poland, Ireland and Malta, women do not have the right to an abortion, and in Portugal this has been won only very recently,” and will not be put into practice for another three months, as the relevant law has not yet been passed.
“In the EU, immigrant women suffer from multiple discrimination. Genital mutilation is secretly practised in Portugal and Spain, in defiance of the law. Obligatory use of the veil and forced marriages occur to a significant extent in these communities in Germany, Spain and France,” the UMAR leader said.
According to the European Commission’s Report to be presented to the Spring European Council on Mar. 8-9, which was released in condensed form today, “three out of four new jobs created in the EU are being taken by women, but they still face too many barriers to realising their full potential.”
“Despite higher educational achievements, women continue to be employed less – and paid less – than men, earning on average 15 percent less than men for every hour worked,” the report said.
Another document released on Monday by Eurostat in all the European capitals contained statistics collected in 2005, giving estimates of average life expectancy for Europeans. Women’s life expectancy was 81.5 years, compared with men’s average lifespan of 75.8 years.
Rumanian women have the lowest life expectancy, at 75.4 years, and Spanish women have the highest, at an average of 83.9 years. Male life expectancy is highest in Sweden, at 78.4 years, and lowest in Lithuania, at an average of 65.4 years.
Eurostat’s projections indicate that the picture will change by 2050. At mid-century, women’s average life expectancy is predicted to be 80 years or more in every EU member country, and highest in France at 89.1 years.
EU statistics on women’s education put Finland, where 41.8 percent of women have university degrees, in first place, while Rumania is last with 11.9 percent of women graduates. The average for the 27 EU countries is 23.8 percent.
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