The Spanish Presidency of the Council of the European Union (January-June 2010) hosted the European Women’s Forum–Beijing+15 in the Palace of Congress of Cadiz on 4th- 5th February 2010.
The Event was attended by official delegations of the 27 Member States and a number of Ministers. Unfortunately the UK Minister Vera Baird, who was due to speak on the second day of the conference was detained in London on political business, and Barbara-Ann Collins, Director of the Women’s National Commission was recommended by the UK Government to speak for the UK. Barbara had been invited to join the Delegation as a representative of UK civil society, together with invited NGO representatives from across the EU.
The WNC was invited to attend the meeting on the basis that we would report back to our partners on activities at the conference and, where appropriate, the outcomes. The forum also provided the opportunity to influence the discussions on what was important to women in the UK following our consultations exercises, conferences and focus groups with women across the four nations throughout the last year. A strong message was sent that women’s grass-roots organisations had an important role to play.
Unlike gender equality meetings in previous European Presidencies there were no formal Ministerial interventions on the Presidency priorities and the meeting was structured around the forthcoming 54th Session of the Commission on Status of Women in March 2010 and the review of the Beijing Platform for Action +15. With opportunities for plenary sessions and interactive workshops and with a significant contingent of Spanish NGOs present, the event was quite informal and numbers of participants exceeded 300.
Following the opening speeches by national and regional Spanish government officials, a plenary session was held on “Introduction to Beijing+15: The action platform and the European Union” follow up report by the European Union. A High Level Panel then discussed “Equality in the European Union: Challenges and Priorities”. During the afternoon, participatory debates on three topics were held. These examined Health and Violence, the Economy and Education and the Media.
On the second day of the conference (5th February), there was a High Level Panel on ‘Women and Decision Making”, feedback from the workshop debates and the event’s closing speeches. The opening High Level Panel was structured to respond to the 2nd European Women in Power Summit which had been held in Cadiz on the 3rd February.
The Summit had been the initiative of the UK Minister Harriet Harman (who had been concerned that the last Summit had been held in Athens in 1992) together with the Spanish Government with its strong commitment to gender equality. It was agreed that the time was right to bring together women Ministers and political leaders of the EU Member States to promote the benefits of a balanced participation of women and men in all areas of representation and decision-making.
The resulting Cadiz Declaration–Towards Successful and Sustainable Societies, outlined that the global economic crisis offered a unique opportunity for change, and equality between women and men is a pre-condition for sustainable growth, employment innovation, competitiveness and social cohesion.
The Mayor of Cadiz opened the event by describing the opportunities presented by the Beijing Conference and suggested that European women should take action by calling for another World Conference. It was something that was repeated many times over the course of the event and the Mayor argued that because of the changing society and women’s expectations, there could be benefits of a 5th World Conference on Women which should explore the role of women today and could further examine the role and impact of regional and local governments.
Belinda Pyke, the Director of Equality between Women and Men at the European Commission, reminded the conference about the significant impact that the Beijing Platform had already made and urged participants to continue to use the framework to initiate change. The dual track process of gender mainstreaming and specific policy interventions had enabled Member States to focus their activities. Probably the most useful tool had been the Commission’s Roadmap of Equality between Women and Men 2006-2010, where policies, programmes and research had been harnessed together for optimum effect.
The EU Spanish Presidency in 1995 had been a milestone, as there had been agreement of the need for a structured framework. In 1999, it was agreed that Indicators could be developed to benchmark progress and currently nine sets of indicators have been developed across the 12 Beijing Goals.
The European Women’s Lobby had been busy developing a report which would be available for CSW 2010. This was a significant year for the EU and time for the development of a new Gender Strategy. The European Parliament was currently examining what should be in the strategy but it was clear, that in order to deliver tangible benefits in terms of gender equality, governments and strategic partners needed to work in partnership.
The conference saw a number of interventions from participants and a lively and interesting discussion on the role of an impact of the feminist movement and the organisations that were championing a women’s agenda. The two sectors complemented one another and ensured that all the areas of women’s inequality were recognised and challenged. There was also broad agreement that the agenda should not be set by, and for, the benefit of men.
There were concerns that a number of reforms lacked credible data so there was a need for a strong evidence base in order to take matters further. The new Gender Equality Institute was welcomed to provide a regular exchange of information. There were calls for women’s knowledge and insight to be taken into account in policy development otherwise women would continue to be marginalised.
The Minister for Equality, Spain, Bibiana Aido was the keynote speaker and she urged participants to think about an EU Legacy. She urged attending delegations focus to be on girls and young women. She also spoke passionately about the aims of the Spanish Presidency and saw it as an opportunity to stimulate some movement in areas of domestic stagnation. One opportunity was to support measures to introduce a European Observatory on Violence Against Women – which would provide a vehicle to introduce a set of indicators on violence against women which are presently lacking.
There was discussion on topics such as education where there were concerns that women’s educational achievement did not translate into economic success. It was argued that social and economic policies were cross-cutting and that governments had a role in ensuring that long-medium term competitiveness had to be maintained. Budgets were a critical tool and it was suggested that people in power understood numbers in a way that they did not understand words, so it was important to think in those terms.
In response to the opening remarks there were calls for increased funding for women’s organisations at EU, national, regional and local levels and a debate about the desirability of quotas for political representation. Some felt that quotas could diminish progress by creating an artificial barrier at 50% while others believed that targets were needed to stimulate the initial increase in numbers.
One speaker discussed the importance of recognising the diversity of women and lamented the lack of awareness of some groups of women’s needs. Intersectionality is now becoming a topic of debate, with calls for stronger mechanisms to enable under-represented groups to contribute to policy formulation. There was support from a passionate intervention from the European Roma community who believed they were the most marginalised group within the European Union.
The Secretary of State for Equal Opportunities in Hungary championed the need to use the Lisbon Treaty to renew and strengthen the machinery in the EU to further support gender equality. The EU 2020 Strategy needed to see gender equality as an integral part of social and economic growth and efforts needed to be made to provide opportunities for women to play a more active role following the impact of the recession. It was agreed that the European Union remained an important vehicle for the exchange of good practice and innovation and Europe has emerged as a model for the rest of the world.
The European Women’s Lobby argued for an increase on feminist economics and there were calls for sustainable funding for the women’s sector to further women’s rights and tackle discrimination. Introducing measures to tackle Violence against Women and ensuring that women’s sexual and reproductive health rights must remain at the forefront of policy-making, and were priorities.
The Panel, including the Director of the Women’s National Commission discussed the importance of women’s representation in both political and economic spheres, and the role that women’s grass-roots organisations play.
To conclude the event the Director of the Belgian Institute for Equality of Women and Men spoke about the aims of the Belgian Presidency (July-December 2010). The primary function of the work will be on taking forward the proposed new EU Gender Strategy and measures to address the gender pay gap.
It was disappointing that agreement of possible EU objectives in advance of the 54th session of CSW were not agreed in this critical year for the Beijing Platform for Action but it was interesting to hear the views of a large body of NGOs from across the 27 Member States and local issues raised by Spanish NGOs.
Issues emerging from the two-day discussions included:
- Europe needed to remain a driving force for gender equality;
- That there needed to be more of a strident ‘vision’ for gender equality moving forward after 15 years;
- There is the existence of a feminist agenda and, a women’s agenda, and both are valuable and complementary in shaping future activity;
- That we must not underestimate the power of the Beijing Platform for Action ‘framework’ and that we must use it strategically and effectively;
- That we must engage younger women in this important debate and raise awareness of the story so far to enable them to take it forward,
- There must be recognition of, and a mechanism for, the voice of under-represented groups of women, within the Beijing Platform for Action; and,
- Strong calls for another UN Word Conference on Women, which some consider, is long-overdue.
Please click here to read the declaration and Harriet Harman's speech