BOBIGNY, France, Nov 15 (IPS) – The dismantling of welfare institutions in Western Europe and the growth of capitalism in Eastern Europe are eroding women’s rights, feminist groups say.
Members of women’s organisations from several Western and Eastern European countries participating in the European Social Forum (ESF) have expressed alarm over the deterioration of living conditions among women all over the continent.
“The application of neo-liberal economic and social policies in Western Europe is bringing about the dismantling of welfare state institutions to the detriment of women,” French activist Maya Surduts said at a debate in Bobigny, 10 km north-east of Paris.
The debate on women’s rights in Europe took place at the ESF held Nov. 12- 15 in and around Paris.
The ESF brought together some 40,000 people to discuss ways to establish “a new Europe of social rights and economic justice”, as the event’s main slogan put it. The ESF was seen also as a preparatory meeting for the World Social Forum to take place in the Indian city Mumbai next January.
The dismantling of the welfare state in Western Europe is creating a new gap between rich and poor women in their access to abortion and contraception, Surduts said. The restoration of the continent’s Christian heritage in the new European constitution will also damage women’s rights, Surduts said.
“By reducing medical rights, neo-liberal policies are reducing the possibilities of working class women terminating unwanted pregnancies or practicing contraception,” Surduts said. “The European Union is about to erode the rights to contraception and abortion, which are fundamental to giving women freedom.”
Similar allegations were made by Russian and other Eastern European activists.
“The Church is gaining ground in Russian life, and trying to reduce women’s rights such as access to abortion and counselling for contraception,” 20-year- old Elena from Russia told IPS.
Feminist activists condemned the legal disadvantages women continue to face both in Eastern and in Western Europe, especially in the face of sexual abuse and domestic violence.
Suzy Rotjman, a French campaigner against violence in marriage said women in Western Europe face major legal difficulties.
“The first concerns cases of sexual abuses or violence in the family,” Rotjman said. “Because justice continues to be a gender-biased process, men are seldom penalised for crimes against women.”
The second problem is a consequence of this bias, she added. “Women seem to know intuitively that there are few chances that justice will be done in cases of sexual abuse.”
In France less than 10 percent of all rapes are reported to the police, she said. This would mean about 30,000 cases of rape going unreported every year.
Male violence against their spouses or children is similarly ignored, Rotjman said. “Even in the face of charges of violence or sexual abuse, judges give defendants the right to visit their children or their former wives, ignoring the risk of repeat violations.”
Activists from Eastern European countries said earlier laws have been substituted by new patriarchal legislation. New law in Russia does not see marital rape as a crime, said Eizaveta Boshkova from the Forum of Independent Russian Women.
Discrimination against women extends to unexpected economic areas such as insurance, CÃ©cile Greboval from the European Women’s Lobby told IPS. “Saying that women live longer than men, insurance companies are charging women higher tariffs for all kind of insurance.”
Women’s life expectancy is not genetically determined, but the consequence of a certain lifestyle, she said. “We want the European Union to end such discrimination.”
Women’s organisations are urging governments to modify the proposed constitution for Europe to include gender equality. “The European constitution must include an article against gender discrimination to guarantee, at least on the paper, an egalitarian Europe,” Greboval said.
Other feminist activists said the capitalist view of the economy sees typical women’s responsibilities such as family and community work as social duties, not as economic activities.
“Women’s work is underestimated in national accounting and in social and economic consideration, leaving women with inadequate social protection despite the central role they play in society,” Mirjana Dokmanovic from the Serbian Centre for Democracy and Human Rights told IPS.
But women’s access to economic security through social protection systems is essential for achieving greater gender equality, Dokmanovic said. “In practically all cases of macro-economic adjustment, women carry the heaviest weight.”