Statement and Recommendations regarding the prevention and fight against sexism in the EU: Mobilising against sexism, to see it, name it and stop it

[Brussels, 15 April 2021] The European Women’s Lobby stands firm that fully implementing the women’s human rights, changing old ways of thinking and old patterns and structures of our society, including eradicating sex- and gender-based stereotypes, is core to ending sexism across European societies.

Mobilising against sexism to see it, name it and stop it– the motto of the Council of Europe’s campaign against sexism - is still highly needed, all over Europe.

Sexism is a significant obstacle for and infringement of women’s human rights and fundamental freedoms all over the world, including within the Member States of the Council of Europe. It hampers equal opportunities and empowerment of women and girls in many domains, including access to power and decision making, development of a professional career, access to public spaces, inclusion in the digital world, choice of one’s lifestyle and a life free from fear and based on women’s and girls’ self-awareness. Sexism is the base of violence and sexual violence against women and girls.

Sexism is still widely accepted and present within our societies. People often do not recognise it and/or they are not aware of the harmful consequences it has, especially for women and children. Denying that sexism is structural, systemic, problematic and an infraction of women’s human rights is in itself a way that our societies minimise the problem: in this case often designating sexism as a minor or harmless thing. Women and girls cannot tolerate any more rape jokes or sexist “freedom of speech” when, in fact, acts of “everyday sexism” become part of a continuum of violence that create a climate of fear, exclusion, and insecurity, severely limiting opportunities and freedom.

In addition, sexism is used as a strategy to silence women and girls. The prevalence of sexism continues to suppress and oppress women and girls, whereby women and girls are subjected to all forms of male violence to silence and keep them in a subordinate position. We are clear that male violence against women and girls is linked to a culture of sexism in our societies, and it is only through holistic structural reform across all areas of society, including politics, work, culture, and public life, that we can eradicate this shadow-pandemic. To end male violence against women and girls, it is essential to acknowledging that sexism is widespread and prevalent across all sectors of society and a manifestation of historically unequal power relations between men and women, often leading to discrimination and always preventing the full advancement of women.

EWL has observed, with deepest concern, the sexist behaviour exhibited by the Turkish President towards President von der Leyen during their recent meeting, as well as the regrettable failure of the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, to respond adequately.

It is imperative that the prevalence of sexist behaviours, openly and guiltlessly exhibited even at the highest echelons of our society, be eradicated. This offensive form of conduct aims at silencing women, hoping to create an environment sufficiently hostile to remove them from the public sphere. This cannot stand.

Recalling the recent historical Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers CM/Rec(2019)1 on preventing and combating sexism, that forwards the first international legal definition of sexism: "any attitude, gesture, representation (...), practice or behavior based on the assumption that a person or group of people is inferior on the grounds of sex, occurring in the public or private sphere."

The EWL reiterates that harmful stereotypes of women and girls impede them in expressing their full potential and allow the perpetuation of discrimination and inequalities between women and men. Due to harmful sex-based stereotypes, women and girls are not free to live, work, and study the way they want and they are limited in their professional, personal, and intimate choices. These stereotypes of women and girls are deeply rooted in the patriarchal culture of our society, and contribute to maintaining the status quo, wherein women are subordinate to men as real second-class citizens. We need to deconstruct the harmful and stereotyped roles assigned to girls and boys from an early age and break the circle which limits women’s and girls’ rights to live a life free from discrimination, violence, and the fear of both. Similarly, harmful stereotypes of the roles and representation of boys and men in our society lead to emotional suppression, and women are too often on the receiving end of the violent or aggressive results of these stereotypes.

In 2020, the EWL participated in a collaborative project Mobilise Against Sexism together with nine national coordination members (from Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, Portugal, Romania, and Spain) to raise awareness on sexism and how to combat all forms of sexism in key sectors of society. The Mobilise Against Sexism project was supported by the Council of Europe, with a goal to raise awareness on sexism and influence Member States to pass legislation or adopt measures in line with the CoE’s Committee of Ministers’ adopted Recommendation CM/Rec(2019)1 – Preventing and Combating Sexism.

Since July 2020, in spite of limited movements due to COVID-19, EWL members in the nine countries have been actively implementing activities in the target sectors as mentioned in the CM/Rec(2019)1, focusing namely on:

  • legislative measures (ban on sexism and criminalisation of sexist hate speech)
  • digital spaces
  • workplace
  • media
  • public sector
  • justice sector
  • educational institutions
  • culture and sport
  • private sphere.

EWL members organised meetings with national decision-makers, including members of Parliaments, and conducted gatherings with key actors such as local members, women’s organisations, civil society organisations, academics, lawyers, journalists, and young feminists to name a few. They also launched webinars promoting the CoE’s campaign on Sexism: See It. Name It. Stop It. and implemented visibility plans on social media and on other communication platforms.

We welcome the inclusive and meaningful engagements happening nationally and EWL will be sharing national stories gathered from the nine countries, highlighting what has been achieved and what our impacts have been thus far. As part of EWL’s commitment towards eradicating sexism and stereotypes hindering the equality between women and men, the EWL has also participated in the EU Advisory Committee for Equal Opportunities between Women and Men for the European Commission in their 2020 opinion on ending gender stereotyping.

Based on the implementation of the project, EWL’s recommendations regarding the prevention and combating sexism in the EU are:

  • Acknowledging sex as a category of structural inequality and discrimination. Currently, women and girls are subject to new and ever-growing forms of sex-based discrimination and inequality. All EU political instruments must adopt a gender mainstream / prevent and combat sexism approach alongside with concrete measures targeting specifically women and girls (for instance, on the Recovery Plan for Europe, on the Action Plan of the European Pillar of Social Rights, on the Strategy on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, on the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child, among many others).
  • It is crucial for overcoming sexism that every girl and boy across Europe is empowered and protected by comprehensive feminist sexuality education, and all should have equal access to this. This will not only support equal and pleasurable sexual encounters when they occur, but have the wider benefit of more aware and respectful relationships, a politically aware and engaged public and ultimately the opportunity to reduce violence, inequality and discrimination which women and girls’ risk daily. Whatever the educational context, all sexual education should adopt a progressive and transformative basis, fully respecting all human rights, to ensure it is actively contributing to realising equality between women and men. Some core principles should be applied to all areas within sexual education as they are crucial to ensure that they benefit all women and girls, with specific consideration needed to ensure content reflects the needs of everyone regardless of background, experiences and situations. Not all girls have the opportunity to access traditional education consistently or at all, and additional efforts should be made to ensure they can access supplementary courses which are free and context specific. These 15 core principles can be found in theEWL’s Feminist Principles in Sexuality Education.
  • As women still make up only 29% of the board members of listed companies across Europe, according to the latest figures from the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), strong and quick progress is urgent. Representation of women on boards is a crucial step for both women’s human rights, including positive role-modelling and prevention of stereotypes that women do not belong in leadership positions, as well as for economic and policy efficiency. As such, the EU must follow up to the commitments made at CSW 65 and reopen talks on the proposed directive on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges, the so-called “Women on Boards” Directive, the European Commission’s legislative proposal made in 2012.
  • The media, including digital media and platforms, have a crucial role in combating sexism, male violence and gender stereotypes. It can contribute to presenting a realistic picture of the skills and potential of women and men, girls and boys in modern society and avoid portraying them in a degrading and offensive manner. It is paramount to consider the prevention and combating of sexism systematically across all initiatives and actions within Europe’s Digital Decade.
  • While sexist advertising is increasingly challenged both through law, policy and practice, what is recognised and considered ‘sexist’ is often highly basic and does not adequately challenge the hyper-sexualised and social gender norms that are assumed in society, nor the under-representation of women and women’s voices in the media. To tackle this alongside taking comprehensive action on violence against women, control over sexism and stereotypes in media, advertising, and education should be enhanced through the adoption of an EU directive, in line with the equal treatment directive and filling the gaps of the 2004 Gender Equality Directive. This could be part of an overarching Directive on Tackling Male Violence Against Women and Girls, including these provisions, online VAWG and sexual exploitation.
  • Sexism should also be fully included within the proposed Directive on Hate Speech.

EWL’s recommendations regarding the prevention and combating sexism in Member States:

  • EWL calls on EU Member States to pass legislation in compliance with the Recommendation of the Committee of Ministers CM/Rec(2019)1 that condemns sexism and criminalises sexist hate speech, and urges States to adopt firm actions aimed at protecting women and girls from male violence;
  • Map existing public policy instruments already in place in all the key areas identified in the Recommendation and in particular on equality between women and men (i.e. national action plans) and work from a sector perspective, supporting the enforcement of anti-sexism measures within already existing public policy instruments;
  • Implement all the above-mentioned EU Directives and policies at the national level adopting a gender mainstream / prevent and combat sexism approach.

Regarding the Council of Europe, EWL recommends CoE to put this Recommendation in the spotlight of their work and to continue and deepen the path and the reflections this Recommendation has unleashed. It is fundamental to always establish and make clear the links between gender stereotypes, sexism, male violence against women and girls and the effective accomplishment of equality between women and men, girls and boys, in line with the goals of CoE’s Gender Equality Strategy (2018-2023), namely the strategic objective no. 1: prevent and combat gender stereotypes and sexism. It would be paramount to have an independent process that could monitor and evaluate how member states are faring in ensuring that the Recommendation is being incorporated in member states’ legislation including putting in place an action plan (similar to the CoE’s GREVIO process) to implement activities. Additionally, a shadow report could also facilitate an external appraisal and ensure inputs of women’s rights organisations / women’s civil society groups.

Finally, we believe this recommendation can serve as a bulwark against detractors of the Istanbul Convention which are gaining traction around the globe, as recently seen with the Turkish President’s decision and intention to withdraw Turkey from the Istanbul Convention.

As per the Council of Europe’s Recommendation on Preventing and Combating Sexism, we believe that through concrete steps taken internationally, at the EU level and by Member States, we can address sexism and its impacts and end a culture of impunity on the systemic violation of more than half of the EU population’s human rights.

Latest video

EWL event "Progress towards a Europe free from all forms of male violence" to mark the 10th aniversary of the Istanbul Convention, 12 May 2021.

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