5 Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls
The Council of Europe maintains close interactions with, and regularly contributes to the work of UN bodies and fora regarding the achievement of SDG 5, such as the sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women – CSW, and the UNECE Beijing+25 process, making sometimes significant contributions to their work (e.g. Regional Review Meeting, Geneva, October 2019). Also, on the occasion of events co-organised with UN bodies, such as the International conference "Women's rights at the crossroads" (Strasbourg, May 2019)” with the participation of the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women, its causes and consequences. These events provide opportunities to share experiences with the design and implementation of pertinent initiatives such as those presented below.
The Council of Europe has three ground-breaking, unique and comprehensive Conventions in the area of human dignity that are all of relevance to the UN Sustainable Development Goals, and through them can support and contribute to the implementation, notably of Goal 5 (Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls) and Goal 16 (Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels):
- The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) (CETS 210)
- The Council of Europe Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (CETS 197)
- The Council of Europe Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse (Lanzarote Convention) (CETS 201)
These conventions have a global outreach. Their provisions can inspire normative and policy changes in all regions of the world and all States can become Party to them. These treaties offer a comprehensive normative framework, a platform for international co-operation and monitoring mechanisms to gather data, assess progress and promote solutions that work. They can thus provide guidance and good practice examples when designing national policies and legislation globally and be used as indicators in the framework of national and international efforts to assess progress in the implementation of Agenda 2030.
The Istanbul Convention frames violence against women as both a cause and a consequence of the inequality between women and men that persists in society. It sets out a comprehensive set of legal obligations to prevent such violence, protect and support women victims and to ensure justice through more effective prosecution. The holistic approach it requires to this end also includes the need to place women victims at the centre of all measures taken and to ensure their empowerment. The reports and recommendations emanating from its monitoring mechanism (GREVIO – Group of Experts on Action against Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and the Committee of the Parties to the Istanbul Convention) set out guidance to States Parties to the Istanbul Convention as to how to step up measures to improve the prevention and combating of all forms of violence against women. For non-State Parties in Europe and beyond it sets out important benchmarks to better prevent and protect women from such violence. Its purposes perfectly align with targets 2 and 3 of SDG 5: the elimination of all forms of violence against all women and girls in the public and private spheres and the elimination of all harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilation.
The Convention on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings is a ground-breaking and comprehensive instrument which is of relevance notably to achieving target 5.2 of Goal 5, target 8.7 of Goal 8 and target 16.2 of Goal 16. While building on existing international instruments, the convention goes beyond the minimum standards agreed upon in them and strengthens the protection afforded to victims. The convention has a comprehensive scope of application, encompassing all forms of trafficking and taking in all persons who are victims of trafficking (women, men or children). The convention makes particular reference to children’s vulnerability in trafficking and requires States to take special account of their need for special protection and assistance. The convention is not restricted to Council of Europe member States; non-members States and the European Union also have the possibility of becoming Party to it. The implementation of the Anti-Trafficking Convention by the State Parties is monitored by the Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) and the Committee of the Parties.
The Council of Europe offers member States and other stakeholders guidance and support for achieving targets 5.2, 8.7 and 16.2 to end human trafficking through the provision of recommendations resulting from the monitoring of the convention by GRETA and expertise on human trafficking issues and activities, such as round-table meetings in the monitored countries. The round-table meetings are a tool for stimulating dialogue between relevant stakeholders in each country and identifying areas where the Council of Europe can support national anti-trafficking efforts.
The Council of Europe supports the implementation of the SDGs that aim to end human trafficking by organising conferences and other events to raise awareness of the provisions of the convention and GRETA’s recommendations. Further, in order to strengthen capacity in preventing and combating human trafficking, workshops and training seminars are organised for different professional groups.
A free online course on human trafficking has been developed by the Human Rights Education for Legal Professionals of the Council of Europe. In addition, information and good practice examples are collected for the promotion of the implementation of the Anti-Trafficking Convention.
The Council of Europe furthers the achievement of the trafficking-related SDGs through the financing and implementation of anti-trafficking projects and activities whose results bring along the necessary outcomes at national or regional level, in line with the SDGs 5, 8 and 16 and its associated targets 5.2, 8.7 and 16.2.
Other legal instruments
In addition to international treaties, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe has also adopted since the 1970s a number of Resolutions and Recommendations to member States in relation to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and the above-mentioned SDGs and associated targets, including:
- Res(77)1 on women's employment (with early references to the issue of gender stereotypes);
- Rec(85)2 on legal protection against sex discrimination;
- Rec(90)4 on the elimination of sexism from language;
- Rec(98)14 on gender mainstreaming;
- Rec(2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision making;
- Rec(2007)17 on gender equality standards and mechanisms;
- Rec(2010)10 on the role of women and men in conflict prevention and resolution and in peace building;
- Rec(2013)1 on gender equality and media;
- Rec(2019)1 on preventing and combating sexism (which provides for a definition of sexism, calls for dedicated action in various sectors of society and public institutions, and to criminalise sexist hate speech).
Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023
The Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023, the implementation of which is a core responsibility of the gender equality sector of activity, directly addresses many of the targets included in Goal 5, including human dignity and the fight against gender inequality; the promotion of the full participation of women in society; the need to guarantee access to fair justice systems for all and to work in partnerships. The 14 indicators agreed upon at UN level to measure the implementation of the nine targets included in Goal 5 cover priority areas of the Council of Europe work to promote gender equality, such as laws and policies to promote gender equality; legal frameworks to promote and monitor non-discrimination on the basis of sex; women and girls subject to different forms of gender-based violence; and women members of national Parliaments and local government. At the same time, the Council of Europe is effectively mainstreaming gender equality considerations throughout its programmes and working methods. This allows the Council of Europe to promote gender equality when supporting States in their efforts to meet several sustainable development goals (in particular Goals 4, 8 and 16 – notably through specific work on access of women to justice). The Council of Europe Strategy for Gender Equality builds on achievements and continues to address existing challenges, including the promotion and protection of the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeker women and girls. The factsheet on the Council of Europe contribution to the UN 2030 Agenda and the achievement of the sustainable development goals, especially Goal 5, provides a comprehensive review of how Council of Europe instruments, standards and activities contribute to the achievement of the SDGs.
The Youth Department has adopted specific Gender Equality Guidelines (French) to pursue gender equality in international youth activities and raise awareness of any form of gender-based discrimination, including gender-based violence. Sexist hate speech on the Internet has been specifically identified as a major issue of concern and addressed, inter alia, through the No Hate Speech Movement Campaign. (French) Gender equality is also promoted and addressed in Euro-Arab youth co-operation as it remains an issue of common concern and potential intercultural polarisation (see also Goals 10 and 16). A Gender Impact Assessment of the Youth for Democracy programme was concluded in 2019; it provided useful indications of areas for further improvement.
Within its electoral cooperation activities, the Division of Elections and Participatory Democracy carries out number of actions aiming at enhancing participation of women in political and public decision-making, in line with the Strategic objectives G.1 and G.2 of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, with the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy 2018-2023, as well as with the CM/Rec(2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making. Besides, graphics to follow up the number and percentage of women elected at the Parliament or at the lower house of the Parliament, are available on ElecData, which is a Collection of Electoral Data of the 47 Member States of the Council of Europe and gathers the specificities of each electoral system of the Council of Europe created and managed by the Division. Additionally, the Division published a toolkit intended for local authorities and NGOs with the purpose of enhancing the capacity of young women and girls from disadvantaged groups to participate in decision-making processes at both local and regional level in order to tackle this paramount issue in accordance with the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Strategy and especially with the Target 5.5 (Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life) of the United Nations’ SDG N°5.
The Council of Europe pays a particular attention to gender equality in the sport area.
The Recommendation on gender mainstreaming in sport (Recommendation (2015)2 of the Committee of Ministers) addresses gender inequalities between women and men in sport, in particular concerning: access to and practice of sport, physical education and physical activity; access to responsibilities, participation in sports governing bodies and decision-making roles; access to resources, salaries, financial incentives and sports facilities; media coverage of women athletes and of women’s sport; reintegration into the labour market after the end of an athletic career; gender-based violence including harassment and abuse (also see the factsheet on achieving gender equality).
The North-South Centre of the Council of Europe promotes gender equality and women's rights by acting as an interface between the Council of Europe and its neighbouring regions, by promoting Council of Europe conventions and tools in the field of gender equality and combating violence against women and domestic violence.
Since 2018, the North-South Centre has been working with women-led organisations from the Southern Mediterranean for the development of concrete ground-based action to combat violence against women and improve the protection and support mechanisms for victims of gender-based violence.
Simultaneously and in cooperation with media and education actors, is raising the issue of multiple discrimination against women and intersectionality in Europe, Middle East and Africa region through awareness, educational and inclusion approaches, as well as trainings of journalists. A set of recommended actions and a campaign on intersectionality are under preparation with the support of young experts of these regions and will be launched end of 2021.
The European Social Charter, the human rights treaty on social and economic rights, guarantees the right of men and women to equal opportunities and equal treatment in matters of employment and occupation without discrimination (Articles 4§3 and Article 20 of the Charter and Article 1§2 of the 1988 Additional Protocol). This includes, in particular, the right to equal remuneration for equal work or work of equal value. Employees who try to enforce their right to equality must be legally protected against any form of reprisals from their employers, including not only dismissal but also downgrading or changes to working conditions.
The European Committee of Social Rights (ESCR) monitors the implementation of the Charter, not only in law, but also in practice.
The European Committee of Social Rights (ECSR) adopted 15 decisions on state compliance with the right to equal pay, as well as the right to equal opportunities in the workplace, following complaints which were lodged within the framework of the collective complaints procedure by the international NGO University Women Europe (UWE). The decisions concern the 15 States which have accepted the complaints procedure (Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Greece, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Slovenia and Sweden). The decisions were adopted by the ECSR on 5 and 6 December 2019 and became public on 29 June 2020.
The decisions identify clear and strong standards in the field of equal pay and, more precisely, they require that the right to equal pay has to be guaranteed in law (UWE Decisions Factsheet). The ECSR has identified the following obligations for States:
To recognise the right to equal pay for equal work or work of equal value in their legislation;
To ensure access to effective remedies for victims of pay discrimination;
To ensure and guarantee pay transparency and enable pay comparisons;
To maintain effective equality bodies and relevant institutions in order to ensure equal pay in practice.
Moreover, the right to equal pay implies the obligation to adopt measures to promote it. This obligation has two elements: on the one hand, collecting reliable and standardised data to measure and analyse the gender pay gap and, on the other hand, designing effective policies and measures aimed at reducing the gender pay gap on the basis of an analysis of the data collected. The States are also under an obligation to show measurable progress in reducing the gender pay gap.
As regards more particularly vertical segregation, the decisions highlight the State’s positive obligations to tackle this phenomenon in the labour market, by means of, inter alia, promoting the advancement of women in decision-making positions within private companies. This obligation may entail introduction of binding legislative measures to ensure equal access to management boards of companies, including by setting specific quotas or targets in both public and private sector that will promote parity. However, a light touch approach that encourages change is also possible, if it brings about measurable progress. Measures designed to promote equal opportunities for women and men in the labour market must include promoting an effective parity in the representation of women and men in decision-making positions in both the public and private sectors.
14 out of the 15 States were found to be in violation of one or more of the above-mentioned aspects of the obligation to guarantee the right to equal pay and the right to equal opportunities in the workplace. However, the ECSR also noted various positive developments. Measures taken by some States in recent years have led to measurable progress in reducing gender pay gap, but progress is slow. The ECSR’s decisions clearly demonstrate that problems and practices, such as segregation in the labour market, lack of pay transparency, secrecy regarding pay levels, obstacles to access effective remedies and retaliatory dismissals continue to exist and prevent full realisation of the equal pay principle.
In its Conclusions 2019, the ECSR adopted a Statement of interpretation on Article 8§4 / 8§5. Article 8 of the Charter provides specific rights protecting employed women during pregnancy and maternity. The aim of such protection is the protection of the health of a mother and a child. Such protection is possible where employed women are entitled to safe and healthy working conditions, i.e. such working conditions which take due regard to their specific needs during respective periods. Safe and healthy working conditions include also protection against less favourable treatment due to pregnancy and maternity.
Since pregnancy and maternity are gender-specific, any less favourable treatment due to pregnancy or maternity is to be considered as direct gender discrimination. Consequently, the non-provision of specific rights aimed at protecting the health and safety of a mother and a child during pregnancy and maternity, or the erosion of their rights due to special protection during such a period are also direct gender discrimination. It follows that, in order to ensure non-discrimination on the grounds of gender, employed women during the protected period may not be placed in a less advantageous situation, also with regard to their income, if an adjustment of their working conditions is necessary in order to ensure the required level of the protection of health. It follows that, in the case a woman cannot be employed in her workplace due to health and safety concerns and as a result, she is transferred to another post or, should such transfer not be possible, she is granted leave instead, States Parties must ensure that during the protected period, she is entitled to her average previous pay or provided with a social security benefit corresponding to 100% of her previous average pay. Further, she should have the right to return to her previous post.
HELP course on Access to Justice for women developed jointly with the Gender Equality Division of the Council of Europe. It has the following modules:
- Introduction to the concept of access to justice
- International and European legal framework
- Discrimination on the grounds of sex and gender
- Avoiding gender stereotyping
- Practical guidance to improve women’s access to justice
- Gender sensitive approach to the practice of law
HELP course on Anti-discrimination, developed jointly with the Directorate of Anti-discrimination of the Council of Europe and in particular Roma and SOGI Unit. It comprises five modules:
- Introduction to Anti-discrimination issues
- Discrimination of Roma
- Discrimination on the ground of sexual orientation and gender identity
- Discrimination of disabled persons
- Discrimination against minority community on grounds of race, religion, ethnicity or national origin
HELP course on Violence against Women and Domestic Violence developed jointly with the Gender Equality Division of the Council of Europe. It has the following modules:
- Understanding violence against women and domestic violence
- International and European Legal Framework
- Overcoming barriers / access to Justice
- Criminal Justice Response I – Investigation and pre-trial
- Criminal Justice Response II – Trial and sentencing
- Civil Justice Response
- Alternative Dispute Resolution
HELP course on Combatting Trafficking in Human Beings, developed with the Council of Europe Group of Experts on Action against Trafficking in Human Beings (GRETA) Secretariat. It has the following modules:
- Introduction and legal framework
- Definitions and legal concepts
- Identification of victims of human trafficking
- Assistance for victims of human trafficking
- The non-punishment principle
- Investigation, prosecution and victims’ rights
- Compensation for victims of human trafficking
- Return and repatriation
The empowerment of Roma and Traveller women and girls is one of the priorities of the Council of Europe’s Strategic Action Plan for Roma and Traveller Inclusion (2020-2025).
The joint EU/CoE project “Roma Women’s Access to Justice” (JUSTROM3) aims to address multiple discrimination and improve related access to justice of Roma women in Bulgaria, Greece, Italy and Romania by supporting the empowerment of Roma women through increasing their awareness about discrimination, complaint mechanisms, the justice system and human rights institutions/equality bodies.
The empowerment of Roma women and youth has been one of the cross-cutting priorities of the EU/CoE Joint Programme "ROMACTED" in the Western Balkans and Turkey. The programme`s Phase II will continue accenting actions towards enhancing participation of these groups at local level until the end of 2024.
In the framework of the Roma Political Schools the CoE has been supporting the training of Roma women, particularly young Roma women, in developing further their competencies to be influential in the public sphere. These trainings are held in Albania, Greece, Italy, Portugal, Spain and Ukraine. In 2022 a pilot project of the Roma Political Schools was also implemented in Kosovo*.
The bi-yearly International Roma Women’s Conferences provide a platform for dialogue between Roma and Traveller women and various politicians, national authorities, international organisations academia about issues affecting their empowerment and prosperity. The recommendations stemming from these conferences support and feed into national and international policy development and planning. In 2021, the 8th International Roma Women’s Conference Protecting the human rights and dignity of Roma and Traveller women in times of crises, held in Strasbourg in November; and the publication of the report Empowerment of Roma and Traveller women: a change under construction. Towards a roadmap for advancing gender equality of Roma and Traveller women in Council of Europe member states were important contribution for the empowerment of Roma and Traveller women.
The Council of Europe’s Strategic Action Plan on Human Rights and Technologies in Biomedicine (2020-2025) includes a commitment to gender equality and respect for diversity. This comprises an expert analysis of gender equality and diversity in a range of biomedical issues including equitable access to biomedical research, gender bias in the quality of health services, gender bias and gender inequity in AI-based decision tools, and the protection of dignity and (gender) identity. See: Expert report by Professor Ina Wagner: “Human rights in biomedicine: Integrating a gender equality perspective”.
In the pursue of this goal, the CDBIO is organising a Seminar on early intervention on intersex children aiming at raising awareness on ethical and human rights/children rights issues raised by early intervention on intersex children and identifying examples promoting children rights in areas concerned (legislation, decision-making process, supporting measures and training).
The Steering Committee on Anti-discrimination, Diversity and Inclusion (CDADI) developed, through the Committee of Experts on Combating Hate Speech (ADI/MSI-DIS) and in cooperation with the Steering Committee on Media and Information Society (CDMSI), a new and comprehensive draft Committee of Ministers Recommendation on combating hate speech, which was finalised in December 2021 and is to be presented to the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for discussion and possible adoption. The draft covers hate speech on a wide range of grounds, including sex and gender.
The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe regularly adopts texts relating to gender equality, which are then sent to member States’ parliaments and governments, mainly based on reports prepared by the Committee on Equality and Non-Discrimination, sometimes also coming from the Committee on Social Affairs, Health and Sustainable Development. Gender equality and women’s rights are covered by the Assembly under various angles, including women’s political representation, economic empowerment, trafficking in human beings and gender-based violence, a severe violation of human rights that affects women and girls disproportionately.
Recent texts adopted by the Assembly include:
Reports under preparation will cover issues such as strengthening the fight against so-called “honour” crimes, the gender aspects and human rights implications of pornography, discrimination against women in the world of sport, participation of women from under-represented groups in political and public decision-making, marital captivity, and justice and security for women in peace reconciliation,
As law and policy makers, parliamentarians often carry out the important task of ratifying international and regional human rights instruments and ensuring that national legislation is in line with the standards those instruments establish. They have the responsibility to hold governments accountable for implementing the standards they have subscribed to. They pass enabling legislation and adopt the necessary budgets to turn words into action. All these functions mean that parliamentarians are uniquely well placed to become key supporters and promoters of gender equality legislation and policies. In this regard, the Assembly and its Parliamentary Network “Women Free from Violence” continue to play an important role in promoting the signature, ratification and effective implementation of the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence. The Istanbul Convention is the only international human rights instrument to expressly recognise the importance of involving national parliaments in assessing the implementation of the treaty. Governments are required to invite national parliaments to participate in the monitoring. They must also submit the reports of GREVIO to parliament for consultation. Furthermore, the Istanbul Convention requires the Parliamentary Assembly to regularly monitor how the States parties implement the treaty. This ensures that the issue of violence against women is regularly placed on the political agenda both at the level of member States and in the Council of Europe and appropriate parliamentary follow-up is provided to the evaluation of a State’s compliance with the convention and GREVIO reports.
In 2021, several events were organised by the Assembly at global, regional and national levels to promote implementation of SDG5. Notably, at the UN Commission on the Status of Women, the Parliamentary Assembly organised a Side-Event, together with
together with Switzerland on Violence against women in the public and private spheres: measure it to end it (15 March). The Parliamentary Network Women Free from Violence organised meetings on Mobilising political forces to prevent and combat violence against women (13 December) and on The Istanbul Convention, a powerful tool for protection against violence (21 June).
At the initiative of the former President of the Assembly, Mr Rik Daems, who actively promoted the ratification and implementation of the Istanbul Convention during his mandate, the Parliamentary Assembly also held a high-level panel and debate on The Istanbul Convention: 10 years on (21 June).
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities actively supports efforts to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls at the local and regional level through both the adoption of texts and participation by its members in events/conferences. All activities and political efforts are underlined by the fact that the Congress has the first time in its history a female president, Gudrun Mosler Törnström.
The achievement of the SDGs is a responsibility shared by all levels of governance - international, national, local and regional. Thanks to its expertise and proximity to the citizens, the Congress of the Council of Europe carries the territorial dimension of the SDGs. The Congress's work focuses on 12 of the 17 objectives defined in the United Nations Agenda 2030.»
The Congress of Local and Regional Authorities adopted the following texts of relevance:
- REC449 (2020) and RES459 (2020) - Fighting sexist violence against women in politics at local and regional level;
- Resolution 405 (2016) on ’’Gender Budgeting’’;
- Resolution 404 (2016) on ’’Women's political participation and representation at local and regional levels’’;
- Recommendation 390 (2016): Women's political participation and representation at local and regional levels;
- RES380(2015): Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people's rights: a responsibility for Europe's towns and regions;
- REC370(2015): Guaranteeing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people's rights: a responsibility for Europe's towns and regions;
- Resolution 318 (2010) on ’’Cultural Integration of Muslim Women in European Cities’’;
- Resolution 303 (2010) on ‘’Achieving sustainable gender equality in local and regional political life‘’ adopted in 2010 states that ‘’The Congress considers equality between men and women as an integral part of human rights and as a fundamental criterion for democracy. ‘’;
- REC(2010)288: Achieving sustainable gender equality in local and regional political life;
- Resolution 279 (2009) on ’’Combating domestic violence against women’’;
- REC(2009)260: Combating domestic violence against women;
- REC(2007)211: Freedom of assembly and expression for lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgendered persons;
- Resolution 176 (2004) on ’’Gender mainstreaming at local and regional level: a strategy to promote equality between women and men in cities and regions.
The work of the Commissioner for Human Rights relating to gender equality focuses, on ensuring that member states have strong human rights frameworks to fight discrimination against women in different areas and raising awareness regarding the importance of ratifying the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence (Istanbul Convention). In the issue paper ‘Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe’, the Commissioner made recommendations concerning current challenges in this field, stressing the need to strengthen women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights as core components of a wider obligation to protect women’s rights and advance gender equality.
- Thematic webpage on women’s rights and gender equality
- Thematic webpage on women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights
- Issue paper ‘Women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights in Europe’
*All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.