International Women’s Day 2020: Looking Back on the UN International Decade for Women from a European Perspective

In 1975, the United Nations’ General Assembly passed Resolution 31/136, launching the Decade for Women (1975-1985) as the setting for discussions of women’s issues on an international scale. In order to celebrate International Women’s Day (8th of March), this exhibit examines the primary goals and themes of the Decade for Women through a European lens, bringing together relevant archival documents and visual materials preserved by the HAEU. These goals and themes were initially laid out in the decade’s subtitle, Equality, Development and Peace, and included in the sub-themes of employment, health, and education. This exhibition will focus on women’s professional training and pay equity, political engagement and leadership, and health by highlighting European documents discussing these themes.

Arising after the first UN women’s conference in 1975, the Decade for Women aimed to increase awareness of women’s issues and encourage fundamental change via recommendations for concrete actions in a number of spheres. The Decade was structured around three world conferences held in Mexico City (1975), Copenhagen (1980), and Nairobi (1985) during which participants created a ‘Program of Action’ and evaluated the ongoing progress. This exhibit places these global themes within a European context, tracing several initiatives and resolutions passed during and after the Decade. The ‘Primary Goals’ slide (slide 3) presents the ways in which the broader themes were translated into initiatives. The selected documents recognise the ways in which issues faced by women are reflected in the overall wellbeing of society and that an intersectional approach is necessary, demonstrating the European institutions’ active interest in gender issues.

The exhibit then continues to issues surrounding women in the workforce, professional training, advancement, and pay equality (slides 4 to 6). These documents, drawn from a variety of European institutions and initiatives, examine the daily realities of these systemic inequalities, providing advice regarding women’s rights in the workplace and offering countermeasures. Beyond bias and individual situations, the trajectory of a woman’s career can be affected by a lack of opportunities for advancement. Initiatives such as NOW (New Opportunities for Women), created in Europe, aimed to combat this by maximising the individual’s potential via education and training.

As these documents reveal, structural change must sometimes be imposed in order to create lasting change, as is discussed in the next two slides regarding women’s political engagement and leadership (slides 7 and 8). Part of this change comes when women are politically active as citizens and leaders as the ability to advocate for oneself and others is the mark of an equal citizen, which is still being discussed by the EU. Studies such as the ‘Comparative Study of Gender and Power’ analyse the obstacles and paths taken by men and women while highlighting the work left to be done.

The next section focuses on women’s health and the importance of intersectional feminism (slides 9 and 10). A central pillar of the Decade was women’s health, which is, at its core, about a woman’s right to control her life. No single element of the process of achieving gender equality exists within a vacuum. A woman may face additional discrimination tied to her race, class, sexuality, health, and religious beliefs and it is for this reason that intersectional feminism is imperative to achieving true equality. The documents were selected for their frank discussion of the ways in which each element is part of the foundation of gender equality. Their creators (European Parliament, Green Alternative European Alliance, the UK-based Jane Esuantsiwa Goldsmith, and European Youth Forum) discuss the ways in which these elements work together and affect the lives of European women.

The initiatives and actions taken during the Decade made significant strides towards gender equality and the consideration of women as active agents. Within the European institutional framework, we can see a number of concrete results: the European Council’s Equal Pay and Equal Treatment Directives (1975 and 1976), the European Council Action Programme on the Equal Opportunities for Women and Men (1995), the Incorporation of Equal Opportunities into European Community Policies Act (1996), and the focus on gender mainstreaming as a legal requirement in the Amsterdam Treaty (1999). This does not negate the fact that there is a considerable amount of work left; rather, it highlights that such change, while ongoing, is possible.