Full gender equality is far from being achieved. On the contrary, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential of setting back previous progress. It has had a disproportionate impact on women by: increasing the burden of their unpaid work at home; worsening their employment and economic standing; exacerbating the rates of domestic violence against women. The challenges at hand are clear across cities in the EU. This is why cities came together and discussed ways to counter discrimination and inequalities during a EUROCITIES city dialogue on 16 June.
They were joined by two high-level speakers who contributed a European perspective: MEP Evelyn Regner, Chair of the FEMM committee on women’s rights and gender equality and Carlien Scheele, Director of the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE).
Ms Regner underlined the need for the EU recovery to be gender sensitive and for half of the EU recovery funds to be dedicated to women. In the longer term, the EU Gender Equality Strategy should be applied with even more dedication to close the gender pay gap, the pension gap and the care gap, according to the MEP. She also highlighted the essential role of cities in working towards gender equality.
Particular attention should also be put on women’s economic standing and the value of their work, warned Ms Scheele. Although women make up the majority of key workers, they often face adverse working conditions and precarious employment. According to Ms Scheele, governments therefore have to include gender equality high on their policy agendas and commit to change through gender budgeting.
Following this global outlook, the cities discussed concrete challenges and measures on the ground. Sonia Ruiz Garcia from Barcelona reported on a considerable burden of care on women in households which increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. In response, the city of Barcelona swiftly implemented a gender contingency plan from the very beginning of the pandemic. This has seen the incorporation of a gender perspective in all participatory spaces of the city, following consultations with relevant stakeholders. Barcelona has also created a support plan for domestic workers and increased the level of flexibility for work times, which is of particular importance to mothers.
The link between women’s unpaid work at home and their unequal employment situation is clear. This was also underlined by Marina Hanke from Vienna for whom financial independence for women is key in working towards more equal societies. In Vienna, unemployment is on the rise with 72% more women unemployed compared to last year, which can have a considerable impact on women’s pension prospects. Vienna therefore put a particular focus on practical support for women, for instance by providing assistance in setting up a home office via its Vienna Business Agency or increasing their funding to women’s organisations. Ms Hanke also raised the important question of how recognition for female workers – both financially and symbolically – could be increased in the future. The discussion also brought to light the importance of recognising foreign diplomas to ensure migrant women find adequate employment opportunities. Moreover, cities reported the need to also support young women in finding new employment prospects.
In addition to such economic considerations, the COVID-19 pandemic has also exacerbated domestic violence against women. Margot Olsson from Malmo raised the point that helplines for victims of domestic violence did not receive more calls than usual, contrary to what might be expected. This might be related to increased control by perpetrators of women’s phones during isolation or due to postponing seeking help until after the pandemic. In addition to helplines, Malmo therefore focused on installing alternative, low-barrier support offers, for instance via Snapchat and Facebook which have reached many people. Especially Malmo’s information programmes on buses for perpetrators of domestic violence was met with interest by other cities in the discussion. Unlike Sweden, many other European countries did impose stringent lockdown measures and several cities reported about an increase in the calls to helplines for victims of domestic violence.
The city dialogue once again made clear that women are facing many intersecting inequalities and particular risks from the fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, it also gave room for hope that cities’ practices and measures on the ground make a difference and are valuable steps towards achieving gender equality.
You can watch the debate here: