Membership of the European Union guarantees rights on equal pay, sexual harassment and maternity leave, and rights for part-time workers. But women across Europe are still facing violence, discrimination and human rights violations on a shocking scale. There is no country in the world in which women enjoy total legal, social and economic equality with men.
Take the issue of abortion for example. Here in the UK there are regular attempts by right wingers and religious fundamentalists to roll back the clock on our reproductive rights, but in other countries it is worse. Abortion is illegal and/or majorly restricted in Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland, Andorra, Liechenstein, San Marino and Malta. In Malta, abortion is illegal and prohibited in all circumstances. Anyone performing an abortion – or a woman who performs one on herself or consents to the procedure – can be jailed for between 18 months and three years.
In Poland, abortion is already restricted, but proposals for a new law that would effectively ban it – even for those women who have been raped – have been met with outrage and protest by feminists across Europe. Today, many Polish women are on strike from work and marching through the streets of Warsaw and elsewhere, chanting and waving placards. More than 100,000 women in Poland pledged not to show up at work today. The sisterhood is powerful, and therefore women in a number of other countries are lending support by holding similar demonstrations.
Women are for sale in every country in the world, in both the global north and south. The massive expansion in recent years of the mail-order bride industry in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania highlights just how desperate women are in those regions. Trafficking is also rife, with governments being criticised by the international community for doing little about it. The fact that so many men from the US and UK feel fine about choosing a life partner from a catalogue, who speaks little or no English, speaks volumes about male power.
Although trafficking is illegal across Europe, although there are relatively few convictions, prostitution is given a green light. In Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Holland, Spain and Germany, brothels are legal entities, and women are sold like any other product.
Despite politicians, law enforcers and much of the general public admitting that legalised prostitution has been a disaster in the Netherlands, there are now attempts to sanitise the trade by introducing a 'free range' type of operation with which to sell women. 'My Red Light' is a project founded by a social investment fund, which plans to operate several brothels in Amsterdam's red light district – which they claim will be run by 'sex workers' themselves. Over 100 window brothels have been closed down over the past decade in the city, and several major pimps and traffickers identified by police. How on earth can running brothels ever be seen as a 'social justice' enterprise?
The rent-a-womb business is on the rise across Europe. Commercial surrogacy breeds exploitation, abuse and misery. Although the poster girl of surrogates is typically a white, blonde, smiling women who is carrying a baby in order to make a childless couple happy, the truth is far less palatable. The women suffer physical and mental health consequences, and many are coerced into it by husbands or pimps. In 2016, gestational surrogacy was legalised in Portugal. Many other countries across Europe are considering liberalising the law on surrogacy to make it easier to outsource pregnancy by using the wombs of poor, desperate women.
In the UK, thanks to the Tory party's austerity policies, domestic violence shelters are closing, and many women and their children are homeless or in temporary B&B without support from specialist services. Disabled women, single mothers, and carers are the worst off under this government. Austerity has a worse affect on women than men.
The 'Father's Rights' movement in Germany is gathering pace. The law has recently been changed to allow unmarried fathers to sue for joint custody, despite the warnings of many feminists that this could give further ammunition to violent and disgruntled former partners.
Sweden has a reputation for being fairly feminist, but even there things are far from equal for women. The Aunties Patrol – a group of older feminist activists – stage a protest outside parliament in Stockholm every Thursday to demand equal rights with pension payouts. The law currently discriminates against women who have taken time out from work to raise children, or who work part time in order to be carers.
The country's position in the Global Gender Gap (World Economic Forum) ratings has gone from the top in 2006 to fourth in 2014. In the Inter-Parliamentary Union's list of the number of women in national parliaments, Sweden is at number six, having recently dropped from a top position.
Women still have a long way to go before we can truly say that men view us as equal. In Italy, 1.2 million women have reported being sexually harassed at work, and 52% of women in the UK have experienced the same. Feminism is needed more now than it has ever been.