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When I look around Europe and Israel, I see women in high positions, even Prime Ministers. I see signs of equality in so many forums which in the past were exclusively mens’ – at the head of banks, presiding over high level courts and in the police and security forces. The EU’s High Representative – my boss – is a woman.
But these achievements do not paint the real picture of women’s equality, or lack thereof. Women still make up the lion’s share of vulnerable workers, in care and education professions which are often undervalued. Women’s work in the home is not calculated by its economic worth, which also leads to lower pension arrangements for women when they reach their retirement. Women study more but earn less than men for the same positions. Many women are still threatened by violence at home.
So we mark women’s day to celebrate the achievements and commit to working on the gaps.
The EU does this in Europe, and we do it in Israel too.
We support Shutafot – a network of womens' civil society organizations working to strengthen the socio-economic conditions of the poorest women, those who face barriers of gender as well as ethnicity. Shutafot will also work to strengthen women-owned businesses which are fundamental to many women's financial independence.
But women’s economic empowerment does not just mean career opportunities and access to social protection. It also means a workplace free from sexual harassment, access to safe transport and balancing of family responsibilities between men and women. And sometimes it means giving men rights too. Paternity leave and parental leave for fathers is a fundamental step in ensuring that women can choose whether and when to return to work after giving birth.
I have been impressed over the years here to see the work done by many civil society organizations in promoting important issues such as equal pay for equal work, fair allocation of resources in budgets and protecting the rights of vulnerable workers. I myself have learned how gender inequality can hide itself in the most innocuous of places – like the sports budget of a local council or the design of the path in a park, which makes it unsafe for women to walk in at night.
I was impressed by a group of Arab women activists who joined me and my fellow EU Ambassadors on the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, for a frank discussion of the alarming level of violence against women in the Arab community.
Women's equality is often whittled away by traditions, culture and religion. The EU stands by the right to freedom of religion as a fundamental human right but this cannot come at the expense of women's human rights. Even in religion there are many voices to be heard. On 8 March, I am in fact hosting an event in my residence where three women discuss what constraints and opportunities religion places on gender equality. The EU also support the Rackman Centre at Bar Ilan University looking at how Israel's family law can meet international standards, by ensuring access to justice for women of all religions.
The EU supports women’s rights. The EU supports human rights. And we’re proud of that.
Lars Faaborg-Andersen is the Ambassador of the European Union to the State of Israel