Council of Europe: Empowerment of women and their balanced participation in the political, public and economic life is one of priorities

Ms Raluca Popa, one of the key speakers at the Minsk International Conference on Gender Equality, Project Advisor of Gender Equality Division of DGII of the Council of Europe, in her interview to ODB-Brussels explains how equal rights and opportunities for men and women are being promoted, their connection to the protection of human rights worldwide, as well as why these values are universal and important not only for Belarus.

Raluca Popa, Project Advisor of Gender Equality Unit, Equality Division of Directorate General of Democracy (DGII) of the Council of Europe


- Why do you think this Conference in Minsk was important? Promote European values? Or share European standarts?

- The conference on gender equality in Minsk brought together representatives of Belarusian authorities, national and international experts and representatives from international organisations such as the OSCE and the Council of Europe. As such, it was a good opportunity to learn from each other, and speak about both the experience in Belarus and the European standards. I understand that the intention is to continue such exchanges and a concrete proposal was formulated to organise a summer course in gender studies at the Belarusian State University in the coming years.
I was invited to speak about the Council of Europe standards on gender equality. I have emphasized in my presentation that these standards emanate from the understanding that human rights violations are a global problem and they require a global solution. This is why our ‘new generation’ conventions, such as the Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings and the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) are open to accession to all countries in the world. In fact, Belarus became the first non-member state to accede to the Anti-trafficking Convention on 26 November 2013.

- How do you find the "gender opportunities" in the post-soviet countries? Why we have "equality" only "de jure" now?

- Earlier this year, on 9-20 March, representatives of governments from around the world met at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in New York to review the progress made in achieving gender equality in the 20 years since the Beijing Platform for Action was adopted. Member States’ representatives agreed on a political declaration in which they expressed concern that "major gaps remain" in all the 12 critical areas of the Beijing Platform for Action, including poverty of women, unequal access to education, unequal access to health care, violence against women, inequality in economic structures and polices, inequality in the sharing of power and decision-making.  Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, despite all the advances that have been made in so many fields, more is needed around the world to achieve full equality and empowerment for women and girls.
In this respect, post-Soviet countries are not different. While each country has its specificities, they all have a common denominator, i.e., the need to step up efforts to achieve ‘de facto’ gender equality.

- How to fight stereotypes towards gender in post-soviet mentality? What is a gender?

- The Istanbul Convention is the first international treaty to contain a definition of gender. Article 3, letter C of this Convention says that "gender shall mean the socially constructed roles, behaviors, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men". This means that for the first time we have a legally binding definition that clearly spells out the fact that gender is a category different from sex. The fact that there are more men than women in politics, for example, is the result, among others, of pressure arising from social expectations, stereotypes and the unequal distribution of economic resources and childcare responsibilities between women and men. Once we understand that gender inequalities are not born out of ‘natural’ or biological differences, we also understand that they can be changed.
Change is, however, a difficult and long process. Gender stereotypes that pressure women and men into traditional roles persist in many places. Fighting gender stereotypes is about changing mentalities, you are right, but I am not sure I am comfortable with the notion of a ‘post-Soviet’ mentality. The measures to address gender stereotypes are universal. One important role is reserved for education. The Istanbul Convention, for example, requires the inclusion of teaching material on gender equality issues in the curricula at all levels of education, both formal and informal. Such a measure would have a significant impact on how children grow up to think about gender and gender equality and it is never too early to start speaking about these issues. There are many more recommendations for concrete measures that can be taken to combat gender stereotypes in a report of one of the conferences that the Council of Europe has recently organised on the topic and which can be accessed here.

- How gender equality can influence economic well-being? Why mixed teams are more effective? Is it diversity more effective in general?

- There is no doubt that gender equality brings improvements in the economy also. While this topic is not in the primary focus of the work of the Council of Europe in the area of gender equality, our work, standards and activities contribute to the empowerment of women and their full participation in the political, public and economic life of the society. We focus on the objectives and priorities  of  the Council of Europe Gender Equality Strategy (2014-2017): combating gender stereotypes and sexism; preventing and combating violence against women; guaranteeing equal access of women to justice; achieving balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making; and achieving gender mainstreaming in all policies and measures.