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Thank you for your kind invitation and I am pleased to be able to join this exchange on women rights with our guests from Tunisia and Egypt.
For the Council of Europe, fighting for human rights without fighting for equal rights for women is not an option. Building a democracy without ensuring women's equal participation in society would be fundamentally wrong. Women and men must be given equal rights, but also equal opportunities to realise these rights. To quote from this week's inaugural speech of US President Obama, "while this might be self-evident, it has never been self-executing".
What can we do to ensure that women and girls have equal rights and opportunities and how can we place this issue at the heart of the political process?
This is an issue which is far from being confined to the Arab world. Globally, of the 700 million illiterate adults, two thirds of these are women. Over 600 million women live in countries where domestic violence is not a crime. Women continue to earn less and to do most of the housework. This happens all over the world and these issues are as relevant to countries in your region as they are to our member states.
Europe has made significant progress in de jure equality for women by prohibiting discrimination, establishing equal rights between spouses, and equality in the workplace. Yet, unfortunately, equality in law does not translate into effective equality in practice. Women do not have the same access to opportunities offered to men. The participation of European women in politics is, on average, only at around 24%, and discrimination in employment or pay persists, both in the private and public sectors. In addition, violence against women, which is probably the worst expression of the existing inequalities between women and men, is widespread in Europe.
For these reasons, the recent work of the Council of Europe focuses on achieving equality in practice in all spheres of life. We are moving from equality of opportunity to equal enjoyment of rights.
Indeed, the jurisprudence of the European Court of Human Rights of the recent years encourages our member States to take positive-action measures to redress the inequalities, stemming from discrimination. Moreover, the judgments of the Court confirm that formal equality is not always sufficient and promoting effective equality could, in some cases, necessitate adoption of specific measures that are coherent with the principle of non-discrimination.
Several articles of the European Social Charter ensure equal rights for women, notably Article 8, which protects the right of employed women and therefore regulates their employment, social security and maternity leave benefits.
Our Conventions, and in particular the Istanbul Convention of the Council of Europe on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence is the most far-reaching international treaty tackling violence against women. It places a great importance on the role of national human rights institutions and obliges states to offer a comprehensive response to violence against women.
These are benchmarks which could be extremely useful for the South Mediterranean region. We are ready and eager to make our standards available to countries in the Arab world and are giving gender-equality and combating violence against women a prominent place in our co-operation with countries in the South Mediterranean region.
A number of initiatives have been or will be launched and we will make sure that women from the region are involved so that their voices and their concerns are heard and reflected in our activities.
One of these platforms is the Euro-Med Women Network, which should bring together all those who care about these issues and who are active in promoting women rights, both in the north and in the south. Mrs Bergamini can and will undoubtedly tell you more about this important initiative, enabling women to have their voices heard.
The discussion during the regional conference on violence against women which we organised in co-operation with the Ministry of Solidarity, Women's Affairs, Family and Social Development of Morocco last year in Rabat, already gave us an idea of the wishes and priorities of women from the region.
The Action Plans of the Council of Europe which we are developing for the region, in co-operation with the authorities, such as in Morocco, Tunisia and Jordan, with a view to support the processes of democratic transformation, help us address these wishes through enhancement of legal frameworks, accession to our legal standards, improvement of national capacities, education and empowerment of women.
Since legislation in many countries in the Arab world still favours men, in particular in the area of family law and criminal law, the first step must be to amend legislation which openly or through judicial practice discriminates against women.
The activity of the European Commission for the Efficiency of Justice (CEPEJ) currently supporting judicial reforms and improvement of the quality of judicial services in Tunisia and Morocco, is a way of guaranteeing that the new legislation concerning women rights is adequately implemented.
This has to be accompanied by efforts to empower women and support victims of discrimination and violence, to train professionals and to change attitudes towards women and what is considered acceptable behaviour for women. All of this must rely on education from an early age about human rights and women rights.
Only that way we shall be able to ensure de facto equality. Both in Europe and in the Arab World. It is high time to live up to promises made to women and girls and to the expectations of empowerment created by the Arab spring.