Equal opportunities for men and women and the Czech EU Presidency
Translation Gwendolyn Albert
The primary slogan of the Czech EU Presidency is “Europe without Barriers”. However, the current political representatives of the country primarily want to remove barriers i the areas of trade and business. Equal opportunities, mainly those concerning women and men, are perceived by the main coalition party ODS primarily as “positive discrimination” that restricts the “free market”. Many non-governmental organizations are of a different opinion, namely, that the policy of equal opportunities for women and men facilitates free choice by breaking down societal prejudices and barriers.
The Barcelona Targets and freedom of choice
In February, the efforts of Czech Labor and Social Affairs Minister Petr Nečas to question the Barcelona Targets, which include providing sufficient childcare service capacity for children three years of age and younger, prompted a society-wide discussion. The Labor and Social Affairs Ministry interpreted this aim as an EU order, i.e., that 33 % of all children must attend nursery school by 2010 whether their parents want them to or not and whether such attendance would be good or bad for the children concerned. This claim was enhanced by a great deal of information about how shoddy nursery schools are and what negative effects they have on children. Often the statements made were not backed up by any research or studies. Czech gender and women’s organizations took a stand against these claims: They issued several press releases and held demonstrations in front of the Office of the Government. The topic of child care facilities (kindergartens, nursery schools) and the harmonizing of family and professional life was paid a great deal of active, detailed attention by the media, which had initially accepted the ministry’s claims uncritically. The discussion and presentation of practices from abroad continues even today. The Czech public is paying attention to this topic, as it now has more of a possibility to look at it from various points of view. Thus a government effort (which might yet result in limiting parents’ freedom of choice) has thus actually contributed to opening up a society-wide discussion, and we hope the Czech Republic will begin to devote more finances and attention to the development of childcare facilities.
Equal opportunities – a neglected priority?
Equal opportunities for women and men are also the topic of a series of actions within the framework of the official Czech EU Presidency activities, with conferences on the topics of flexicurity, family policy, and equal opportunities for women and men. Unfortunately, at most of these events, Czech nonprofit organizations have no access, despite their interest in these topics. No Czech gender non-profit organizations were invited to the conference on family policy, nor was anyone from the Government Council for Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. When asked why that was, neither the Czech Labor and Social Affairs Ministry nor the Office of the Government were able to give an answer. Some steps in our direction have been taken by the new Czech Human Rights and Minorities Minister, Michael Kocáb, who wants more intensive cooperation between the government and non-profit organizations. Perhaps this will be proven in practice and non-profit organizations will be perceived as respected partners (and not only during the Czech EU Presidency).
Delegates from the European Women’s Lobby to the Commission on the Status of Women in New York experienced a similarly cold attitude from representatives of the Czech Republic. “Representatives of the Czech Republic also were responsible for communicating with European non-profit initiatives within the framework of the Czech EU Presidency. However, gender NNOs met with a lack of interest. On the other hand, I evaluate the initiatives and proposals of the Czech Republic’s UN Representation in New York very positively, as they submitted many very high-quality observations and additions to the concluding recommendations. Should these recommendations be realized by the member states, they will contribute to a real shift in the area of equal opportunities of women and men,” says Alexandra Jachanová Doleželová of Gender Studies, who currently chairs the Czech Women’s Lobby.
Gender organizations in the Czech Republic are not just waiting for the government to notice them, but are playing their critical social role and organizing their own actions. The Czech Women’s Lobby, which includes most of the leading Czech organizations working on equal opportunities for women and men, launched its own project focused on equal opportunity and the Czech EU Presidency. The series of actions was begun last November with a conference entitled “Equal Opportunity of Women and Men – A Neglected Priority?” at which the Czech government’s attitude was critically analyzed. Kristýna Ciprová, coordinator of the Czech Women’s Lobby, said of this project: “Its main aim is to draw attention to the lack of Czech government interest in the topic of equal opportunities for women and men, and that not only during the Czech EU Presidency. Round tables, press conferences and a media center will raise awareness among the Czech and foreign media. An integral component of the project is the establishment of communications between the nonprofit and state sectors, which are currently minimal. Media interest is rather high, but cooperation with the state sector has not moved forward much. One proposal for a working meeting came from the Office of the Government, at which we discussed options for cooperation during the Czech EU Presidency. However, it is still unfortunately not assumed that experts from the non-profit sector might somehow constructively participate in government activities.”
We hope the discussion that has opened up on the topic of child care facilities and their relation to the options for work/life balance and equal opportunities for women and men will not come to an end with the Czech EU Presidency, but will result in changes in Czech and EU family and social policy.