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8 March 2016

Want to win for women? Then you’ve got to vote to stay in Europe

We mustn't let a shady coalition of men take Britain out of Europe, warns Catherine Bearder. 

By Catherine Bearder Catherine Bearder

Many of us are tired of the EU referendum debate being dominated by men who appear to be only interested in furthering their own political careers. So as we celebrate International Women’s Day, let’s reclaim this debate and put women back at its heart. Because let’s be honest, it is difficult to believe that the likes of Nigel Farage, George Galloway and Boris Johnson have the interests of women as their top priority. So it’s vital that we speak out and make ourselves heard in this increasingly heated debate about this country’s future.

Together in Europe we have made great strides forward for equality in recent decades. Take workplace rights. EU law has banned discrimination between women and men and enshrined the principle of equal pay for equal work. Women who become pregnant cannot be treated differently and have the right to take paid leave from work to visit a doctor. And mothers across Europe have the right to at least 14 weeks maternity leave and a minimum of four months off to care for newborn children. Ukip and right-wing Tories have made it perfectly clear that the first thing they want to do if the UK leaves Europe is tear up many of these hard-won protections. Nigel Farage has gone as far as saying that working mothers are worth less than men. We must not him and others turn the clock back on these hard won rights

Of course there remains a lot to do. Analysis this week shows that a woman in the UK is likely to earn a whopping £300,000 less than a man over her working life. Meanwhile women across Europe are paid an average of one-sixth less than men, meaning in effect they are working two months for free every year. So it is significant that the EU has made it a central objective to eliminate the gender pay gap. This includes improving pay transparency, a move Ukip and Tory MEPs voted against; and promoting measures to tackle underlying issues such as lack of affordable childcare. The anti-Europeans may not like it, but in a world of multinational companies and growing interconnectedness, we must work together to deliver pay equality.

By acting together in the EU we are working to ensure women can go about their daily lives without fear of violence or harassment. A shocking one in three women over 15 in Europe has experienced physical or sexual violence. The EU has put forward a raft of measures to combat violence against women and led  international efforts to end female genital mutilation. It also recognises victims of human trafficking to be just that, victims. It is enshrined in law that they must be given the protection they need and not treated as criminals, a law which I am now pushing to be properly implemented across all EU countries. And since last year, restraining orders taken out by victims of domestic violence in the UK apply across the EU, protecting women from abusive partners if they move or travel abroad.

This week the EU also ratified the Istanbul Convention, an international treaty that requires signatories to provide female victims of violence with the support they need including sheltered accommodation, psychological support and telephone helplines. Now the EU is calling on its member countries to ratify it as well. The UK signed up to the treaty in 2012 but the government is now dragging its heels in fully ratifying it, most likely because swingeing cuts are forcing many women’s shelters to close. I hope the additional pressure from the EU will cause the government to think again. I am also seeking European sources of funding to help women’s charities in their work providing vital support for victims of trafficking and domestic violence. 

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The fight for gender equality is far from over and there remains much to be done. But recent years have shown we can achieve so much more when we work together with our European partners. Ukip and the anti-Europeans say they say they want to take our country back. Well I say let’s take our country forward. Let’s stay in and together we can continue building a stronger, safer and more equal future for women wherever they live in Europe.