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International Women’s Day: Gender equality in Belgium

UN Women -- female representatives at the United Nations -- call for equality in 2019. © UN Women/Ryan Brown

Today, 8 March, is International Women’s Day, when women all over the world, as well as their allies, repeat the call for equality between the sexes in all walks of life – from the workplace to housework.

International Women’s Day (IWD) has existed in some form since 1909. It was adopted by the feminist movement in 1967, and was official recognised by the United Nations a decade later.

In Belgium, the day was marked by a statement by the leaders of the two main democratic institutions of the land. Karine Tillieux (PS) is speaker of the federal parliament, and Stephanie D’Hose (Open VLD) chairs the senate.

The two women used the occasion to present a proposal to make Belgium’s the most gender-conscious in Europe.

The government of Alexander De Croo, by a conscious decision during negotiations, is divided strictly 50-50 on gender lines. However the institutions of government are not all as tidily arranged.

For example, the heads of the ministries run by those ministers are still heavily male-run. And even within the ranks of ministers, appearances are deceptive. Within the so-called kern – the most important ministers who effectively make all the policy decisions – the ratio is still 60-40.

The idea of Tillieux and D’Hose is to focus on what is known as ‘gender mainstreaming,’ – the introduction of a form of gender test for new legislation. Whenever a new law is proposed, the impact on gender equality must be investigated.

Just as the Court of Audit measures the impact of a law on the budget before and after its adoption, gender equality should also receive an automatic check,” said Tillieux.

We also want to show MPs how to fulfil their mandate more gender-consciously,” added D’Hose.

In that way, committees could be filled less stereotypically. There are proportionally many more women in the public health committee than in the defence committee. During the big debates it is mainly the men who speak. The physical space of the building also reflects the fact that men used to rule here. See the portraits on the walls. And something else: there is still no maternity leave for members of parliament.”

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The VRT took the opportunity to ask if such a thing as IWD is still necessary in the modern world. The answer from five prominent women was a resounding Yes.

As long as men and women are not equally represented in all walks of life in our society, International Women’s Day is desperately needed,” said Françoise Chombar, CEO of chip manufacturer Melexis. It’s a bit sad when you look at the S&P 1500 index, and there are more CEOs called John than there are female CEOs.”

The pay gap in Belgium is still about 24%,” said Véronique Goossens, chief economist at Belfius. Women often choose studies that lead to less paying jobs and they more often work part-time, that is part of the explanation.”

The justice system is no more equal than politics or business, said lawyer Crépine Uwashema. Criminal complaints sometimes drag on for an endless period of time, while it has often taken a lot of courage to file a complaint. Moreover, the victim is sometimes forgotten in criminal proceedings, because more attention is paid to the situation of the suspect.”

I think it is also important to use the progress that we have already made in the Western world as an example and support for cultures and countries where women are still heavily discriminated against,” said Colonel Karin De Brabander of the Royal Military Academy.

The consensus: gender equality is a win-win proposal. And it is not just a detail to be wished for: it is and ought to be a fundamental principal of society. Veronique Goossens speaks for the business world: “Your creditworthiness improves, those companies are more innovative and can respond more quickly to changing consumer behaviour. It is not just something it would be nice to have, it does have an impact.”

Alan Hope
The Brussels Times

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