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Women, equal opportunities and rural development

Equal opportunities for men and women: a European ambition

by Marie Jouffe(*)


document type: article
keywords: women, equal opportunities
source: LEADER Magazine
last update: 5/96


Little by little, the application of the European Union's principle of equal opportunities for men and women has been extended. Its current ambition to incorporate this principle into all relevant EC policy areas is likely to affect many Europeans, especially women.

The EC's policy of promoting equal opportunities was originally provided for in Article 119 of the Treaty of Rome, which establishes the principle of equal pay for men and women. In the spirit of Europe's "founding fathers", this principle aimed to eliminate unfair competition and to prevent "wage dumping" since women were obviously being paid far less than men.

Almost 40 years later, women are still being paid between 15-30 % less than men, even before allowing for non-remunerated efforts. There is no doubt that the arrival en masse of women into the job market in the course of the last 20 years has lead to a new situation, requiring new solutions from the European institutions.

  • Equal opportunities - the letter of the law
Article 119 has served as the legal basis for more socially-oriented policies. The European Communities have continued to build on the principle of equal pay and have extended the scope of its application by adopting, between 1975-1992, six Directives, based on numerous examples of jurisprudence delivered by the European Court of Justice, which make up European legislation in the area of equal opportunities. This legislation covers equal pay; equal treatment in access to employment, training, promotion and working conditions; equal treatment in social security; equal treatment for self-employed men and women; safety at work for pregnant women.

Transposed into the legislation of the twelve, and subsequently the fifteen Member States, these Directives have consolidated and developed the recognition of minimum rights and the elimination of sexual discrimination. Discrimination between the sexes, originating from an outdated approach to women's rights, is found ensconced in the twists and turns of the various codes, laws and regulations covering social and family relations as well as legislation in the areas of employment, social security, civil liberties, succession rights, etc., and legislation governing rural communities.

  • A Community action programme for equal opportunities: information and analysis
Though indispensable, this legislation has not brought about true equality, and so, in 1982 the European Commission launched its First Action Programme for equal opportunities for men and women. Today the Third Programme with the same objective has reached completion and the Fourth Programme was adopted by the Council of Ministers of the European Union in December 1995 for the period 1996-2000.

As a result of the three Action Programmes implemented at European level, a new awareness of the respective situations of men and women has emerged, especially in relation to employment and the working environment. This awareness is the result of research and studies undertaken by networks of experts, support for pilot projects and exchanges between Member States, in areas ranging from employment to education, through vocational training schemes (e.g. IRIS network), setting up businesses (e.g. ILE programme) as well as actions to raise awareness and circulate information on the role of women in society as a whole.

These actions confirm, for instance, that on the job market, the overall situation of women continues to be less favourable than that of men: higher female unemployment rate, lower pay, greater family responsibilities, less training or less recognition of similar qualifications. Action in this area has also highlighted the role of women in society and the extent to which they care for dependent relatives - children or elderly family members.

During the last five years, studies, actions and pilot projects have all focused on the specific needs of women in rural areas, notably in connection with the ESF programme NOW (New Opportunities for Women), which concentrated on equal opportunities.

This action has resulted in the identification of a number of factors which are an obstacle to equal opportunities. Taking these as a starting point, the European Commission's White Paper on Social Policy outlines the following three areas as priorities for further action to promote equal opportunities:
- to eliminate existing segregation on the job market and to promote women's work;
- to reconcile women's working and family lives;
- to increase the role of women in decision-making.

These three priorities will be emphasised under the Fourth Action Programme to be implemented in the period 1996-2000.

  • Integrating equal opportunities: new approach for the future
In contrast to previous programmes, which focused on specific actions catering for specific groups of women, the Fourth Programme will adopt a new approach, by aiming to integrate equal opportunities into all relevant policy areas.

This new approach will involve integrating the principle of equal opportunities into all arrangements, procedures, and policies drawn up in other areas: which will obviously encompass social policy, but also areas such as the environment, transport, business, regional policy and rural development.

Evidence of this new approach is already visible at the highest level of the Commission, in the formation of a Group of Commissioners to deal with equal opportunities. In this respect, it is not insignificant that for the first time in European history, five women were appointed as Members of the European Commission in 1995. This group has already submitted a Communication to the Commission, to incorporate equal opportunities for men and women into all the Community's policies and actions (1) - which was adopted on 21 February last.

In the context of this approach favouring integration across the board, assistance will not be limited to the awarded of funds for equal opportunity policies. According to the existing legislation, this policy will also receive support from the Structural Funds and those programmes which qualify under the Structural Funds should aim to integrate the principle of equal opportunities.

One such programme is LEADER. But the evaluation of how the principle of equal opportunities has been applied in local action groups will not be limited to head counts of women participants in training schemes or recipients of self-employment grants. Rather, the objective is more ambitious, and concerns overall structures and includes actions which will have an impact, in the medium and long-term, on involving everyone in community development.

In short, this involves ensuring progressive attitudes to the roles of both sexes in society. This will be a crucial factor in rural development programmes which aim to sustain local populations in rural areas.

(*) A lawyer specialising in social affairs, Marie Jouffe worked at the European Commission as an expert during the implementation of the Third Community Action Programme for Equal Opportunities for Men and Women (1991-1995), where she was particularly involved in the reform of the Structural Funds and opened the file on women in rural areas.

(1) COM (96) 67 final


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