Belgium -- Glass ceilings and sticky floors still keep women in their place

As part of NewsMaven's final report, we asked our correspondents about their thoughts and predictions for the status of women in their country. Today's sneak preview is from Belgium.

Marjan Justaert
Marjan Justaert De Standaard, Belgium
Belgium -- Glass ceilings and sticky floors still keep women in their place - NewsMavens
Brussels. Pixabay

What is the biggest women's rights story?  

Abortion has always been a hot topic in Belgian history ever since the first legislative steps were taken in the beginning of the 1990s. The first law decriminalizing the procedure in some circumstances even led to  a one-day abdication  from then-king Baudouin, whose Catholic faith prevented him from giving royal approval to the change. He stepped down while the law was passed, resuming the throne the following day.

In July 2018, Belgium took a major step forward: abortion will no longer be considered  a crime. The Belgian majority parties signed a compromise about removing the subject from the penal code and instead agreed to treat it as a woman's right. The step is important to tackle the taboo that still exists about abortion, however it is criticized. Conservatives don't believe that abortion should be considered as a "right", progressive voices denounce the fact that it’s still punishable if the conditions are not fulfilled.

A second big story that dominated the news last year is the battle against sexual harassment and sexual violence. As in many other countries, Belgium also had a wave of #Metoo-stories coming out in 2017 and 2018. At least one big tv-personality fell from grace.

Recently, there was another story flickering up: after the brutal murder on young student Julie Van Espen (23), the perpetrator turned out to be a serial rapist who had been convicted several times, but at the moment of the murder he was not in jail. The story revealed a big consensus and a need to rethink (and strengthen) the punishment and treatment for sexual violence  

What is the biggest obstacle to women's equal rights?  

The attention towards gender equality has grown enormously over the last years. In spite of that, there’s still a lot of work to do. Belgium’s ranking on the ‘Global Gender Gap Index’ decreased due to the still existing "glass ceiling" and "sticky floor".

The amount of women in leadership positions, in business as well in politics, is still deplorable. Businesswise, Belgium is a slow learner: in 6 of the 20 biggest companies there's no "womanager" at all.

Also in politics Belgium never had a female Prime Minister so far, and women in politics remain underrepresented. According to several prominent women, female ambition is still seen as something dirty. The discussion rapidly turns into a debate pro-contra female quota, but it’s so much more than that. In the slipstream, the pay gap still exists, and one of its consequences is the pension gap.

Women on average have a third less pensions than men in Belgium. That "equal pay day" passes every year without further buzz nor action, and this could be deemed alarming. Smaller obstacles are old habits such as the continuing maintenance of the traditional role pattern in publicity, in children’s toys and so on. Another example is the tv-transmission of female sports. In Belgium soccer and cycling are very, very popular but there’s a big difference between the male and female games/races. The first are broadcasted entirely, the second hardly…  

Who are the outstanding feminist voices?  

Since a few years Caroline Pauwels, the rector of the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB) has become an intelligent, reasonable opinion leader about female (and human) rights, diversity, language etc.. She introduced the slogan "Speak Freely, Listen Respectfully, Different Opinions Matter" and makes her university an interesting laboratory of innovation in may ways. Her VUB is to introduce a quota system that will require one in three professors to be a woman. With 28% of its professors already female, it has the best female representation of an any Flemish university. Pauwels said she felt uncomfortable introducing a quota, but defended it as necessary to achieve more gender equality among the university’s professors.

Three women’s rights activists also went into politics: Assita Kanko was chosen for the Flemish nationalists, Petra De Sutter for the greens and Goedele Liekens for the liberal party. Kanko, who fights for female empowerment since she underwent genital mutilation as a child in Burkina Faso, founded an incubator to get more Belgian women to run for public office and give them the support they need to succeed. De Sutter, an expert in fertility and professor in gynecology at the University of Ghent, was born a man. She is occupied with minority rights, sexual health, bioethics and the relationship between environment and health. TV presentator Liekens is a Goodwill Ambassador for the UN since 1999. In Belgium she tackled lots of taboos about sexuality, she travels a lot to fight for anticonception, sec education and against child marriages, allowing women to lead healthier and more productive lives.

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