Is Gender Equality Superfluous?

Governments across Europe are shrinking funds for programmes targeting gender equality. Are we really surprised?

Denmark is regularly held up as being leaps ahead of its European neighbours with regards to gender equality and fair society. Kvinfo, a cultural and political institute based in Copenhagen, works to ensure that, not just Denmark, but all of Scandinavia lives up to this image. Recent projects include the creation of a free online encyclopedia of Nordic women’s literature spanning 1,000 years, to smash the idea that talented women writers are rare and exceptional footnotes in literary history. It is not just in literature that Denmark has fallen short of its image as a sort of utopia for a fairer society. Gender equality for migrant and refugee women seeking sustainable employment is lacking, which is why Kvinfo created its mentor network.

However, Beatriz Hernandez de Fuhr explains that, despite its success, social and gender equality projects like this seem to be the first to go as governments cut public spending. Why?

Last spring, I was in Brussels facilitating a workshop for the European Women’s Lobby, when I received a disturbing email. It was just a few lines outlining the Danish government’s spending plans for 2014-16.

But the plans included scrapping nearly €2m (13m DKK) from the mentor network I work for at KVINFO, the Danish Centre for Information on Gender, Equality and Diversity.

My initial reaction was denial. How could this happen? The mentor network had proved successful since its inception over 10 years ago. In 2009 that success was recognised in Denmark and abroad with the launch of a special political mentoring programme to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Danish women’s suffrage.

Both the European Commission and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development had highlighted the programme as best practice for other nations wanting to improve the economic wellbeing for women of all backgrounds. And that was why I was in Brussels –to support other countries to emulate Denmark’s work.

To reward our accolades by scrapping the project –which is effectively what the funding cut means –was a shock. Speaking to Danish media, Elisabeth Møller Jensen, Kvinfo’s former director (she retired in January), said: ‘The idea behind it is so simple and low-cost. That is why organizations in 20 countries around the world have already adopted it.’

Kvinfo’s Mentor Network

Kvinfo works to bring gender politics, and research in the field, to the forefront of cultural debate in Scandinavia. The organization also stepped in when the level of immigration and the integration of immigrants rose up the political agenda. Kvinfo’s Mentor Network matches women of refugee and migrant backgrounds with women active in Danish society. It opens up employment opportunities for migrant women that might not otherwise have existed, and develops their personal and professional networks helping them integrate into Danish society.

Immigrant women in Denmark have the same opportunities and legal rights as Danish women, the problem is that sometimes they are not fully aware of what their rights are. It is even more acute for those women who live in areas with strong concentration of migrants, because their interaction with Danish women or men of their own age with shared interests is minimal.

The programme has been running since 2002, and today, there are more than 3,200 successful matches, and a constant flow of women signing up voluntarily as mentors and mentees.

Settled: Russian immigrant Inna turned to Kvinfo

Russian immigrant Inna turned to Kvinfo to find work and build networks in Denmark

One of our mentees Inna Besserman (pictured left) says, ‘I would never have found a job without my mentor.’  Inna, 30, is originally from Russia and moved to Denmark to live with her Danish husband. After nearly two years of looking for work she grew desperate. She had spent 18 months studying Danish, but still struggled to find a job. Then in 2011 Inna met Birthe Berger through Kvinfo’s mentor network. Birthe, 59, works in communications and was able to help Inna find a job. It was little things that helped Inna, such as editing her CV, correcting her Danish, and helping her understand the nuances of Danish culture.

This simple connection is a huge help to newly arrived immigrants to Denmark, but it also enriches the lives of Danish people. Birthe and Inna became friends sharing books and visits to museums and the cinema. In an interview for the Copenhagen Post last year, Inna said: ‘I would never have found my job without the mentor programme. Birthe gives me a lot of professional guidance I couldn’t get from anywhere else,’and, ‘Birthe is the only Danish friend I have that is my own and not also my husband’s.’

Social value

What makes Kvinfo effective? After all, the concept is so simple. International experts on mentoring argue that the Mentor Network success is because of the way it sets concrete goals for our volunteers and their mentees. In addition, we establish professional and personal partnerships that appeal to all those involved. For example, if we have an immigrant or refugee wanting to pursue a career in politics, we partner her up with a female politician. We do this across all industries, so that on our books we have a wealth of talented women working to help each other. Vanessa de Oliveira, is a Brazilian immigrant who wanted to become a councilor for the Danish conservatives. She was matched with Pia Allerslev, Copenhagen’s then cultural mayor and member of the Social liberal party. Pia helped Vanessa navigate the local government’s invisible networks and prepare a campaign.

Up till now the Danish Ministry of Social Affairs and Integration funded the operational aspects of the Mentor Network. The money came from a pool earmarked for social welfare, health, and labour market initiatives. The program’s website, database, and the materials used for the orientation courses of mentors and mentees have been funded by private donors.

The politics of austerity

Why did Danish politicians suddenly decide to stop funding Kvinfo’s Mentor Network?

For my colleagues at the European Women’s Lobby the news was no real shock. In 2012, the Lobby issued a report mapping the negative impact of austerity measures across European Union countries on women’s well being. The report covers three key areas in detail: one, jobs and wages, two, services and benefits, and three, funding for gender equality.

The report’s findings show how cuts in public sector jobs have had a drastic effect on women’s employment as women constitute on average 69.2% of public sector workers in the EU. It offers data from the southern countries, Spain, Portugal and Greece, where the cutbacks focus on the most female-dominated sectors – such as education, health and social work. In Italy, in education alone 87,000 jobs losses are expected in coming years. In the UK women are hit twice as hard because they use social welfare and public services in far greater numbers than men.

The report illustrates how budget cuts have hampered the ability of institutions working on gender equality to do their jobs, resulting not only in a loss of funding, but also of visibility and focus of the issues.

But what is less well understood in this report is the interplay between austerity measures, gender equality, and women from ethnic minorities and of migrant backgrounds.

In Denmark, for example, gender equality is closely linked to labour market participation. The country holds one of the highest female employment rates in Europe, and gender equality is perceived as a reality for Danish women, according to Lise Rolandsen Agustin, a professor at the Center for Equality, Diversity and Gender at Aalborg University.

However, the gap in unemployment outcomes between native and immigrant workers is also longstanding. Ethnic minority and migrant women have been, and still are, a special target group because they are disproportionately represented both in the unemployment and the sub-employment segments. Thus, labour market participation and gender equality are clearly underachieved goals for migrant women.

‘Funding is scarce’ is something we hear in Europe often these days. But to impose austerity by shutting down initiatives designed to support those who truly need support should not be an option.

Sadly, in Denmark – a country famed for its women-friendly measures – politicians cannot agree on the relevance of a programme that contributes precisely to migrant women’s labour market integration and to achieving gender equality. We shouldn’t be surprised to find politicians in other EU countries acting in a similar way and using the crisis to explain their unexplainable actions. Even worse, these politicians seem to care little about the long-term consequences of what they are doing.

What can be done?

A crisis is often needed to induce change. The case against austerity does not mean that economic reforms are not needed in the EU. But the money governments seek to save can’t be taken mainly from women’s pockets. The further degradation of funding for gender equality, both at the EU-level, and at national level must stop.

The European Women’s Lobby has forwarded a solid set of recommendations to EU Member States, the European Commission, and to women’s organisations across Europe. The Lobby asks European governments to commission an assessment of the gendered impact of budget cuts and economic policy reforms. Such an assessment should consider austerity measures in each country and the impact on women and men, as well as the impact on specific groups like ethnic minorities and migrant women.

The expectation is that the assessment will provide a holistic understanding that informs policy making and budgetary decisions. Another practical suggestion is that governments allocate funds to compensate for the negative impact of the measures already implemented. This is the case in Denmark with Kvinfo’s Mentor Network. The programme is now applying for new funding.

Austerity is a painfully familiar word to all Europeans. It means harsh cutbacks in public spending in areas considered superfluous by governments and politicians. Is gender equality superfluous? I don’t think so. The right time for austerity measures is during periods of economic prosperity, not during financial crises. We are going in the wrong direction. That is why we must ensure that the imbalances caused by imposing austerity measures are corrected as soon as possible.

Photo by Bobby Hidy