Sexual assault – an unprotected environment in the European parliament

Video reported by Louise Wernvik. Edited by Søren Tang, Biwa Kwan & Louise Wernvik.

Story by Louise Wernvik

Gender equality ranks highly on the agenda nowadays. This interest is partly because of the 100th anniversary of International Women´s Day, and partly because female discrimination is still occurring in many areas of society. Throughout Europe, women are disadvantaged in work terms of wage levels, pensions and they are also victims of objectification by their male superiors. In the charter of the European Union, it is specified that they seek to achieve gender equality within its member countries. However, the European parliament is having difficulties putting their own agenda into practice.

Sexual discrimination is common in many workplaces therefore it is no surprise that there is an ongoing power discrepancy within one of Europe’s most powerful organizations. What differs from many other workplaces is the fact that the European parliament lacks a system to protect its employers from sex-oriented discrimination. In an article published by New Europe magazine (February 27th, 2011), an anonymous journalist tells the story about politicians in the European Union making sexist remarks and putting their hands on the thighs of their female co-workers. The journalist refers to this as near-daily occurrences in EU-Brussels. The European Parliament is turning a blind eye concerning this issue as it is not being discussed within the European Parliament.

Eva-Britt Svensson is the chair of EU’s committee on Women´s Rights and Gender Equality. Throughout her seven years in the parliament, she has met several victims of the elected sexual offenders. She says the biggest issue is male member of the European parliament (MEP) sexually harassing their female assistants.

“I have female assistants coming to my office and telling me about male members of parliament sexually harassing them. It is a difficult situation because these girls have no one to turn to. In one of the cases, the girl had proof for being sexually harassed by her MEP, but it wasn´t enough and you can´t fire a man who is elected by the people. At the end of it all, she was the one who had to leave,” says Eva-Britt Svensson.

Since there is no institute of the European parliament dealing with this, there is also no documentation other than personal note- taking. Eva-Britt Svensson estimates that the hidden statistics are very high. Sexual harassment is, of course, a crime that should be reported to the police. But even if the MEP would be found guilty of charge, he or she wouldn´t be forced to leave their post at the European parliament. They are elected by the people and can´t be fired because of sexual assault. This doesn´t mean that MEPs are immune to laws, equally like any other citizen they are referred to court in case of committing a crime. The problem is that the European parliament doesn´t have zero toleration against sexual harassments.

In research of this article, five random MEP assistants were asked if they knew where to turn to in case of sexual harassment by their MEP. Not a single one of them knew what to do. They confirmed that there is no support system or contact for this kind of issue, but that they would very much like one. The Assistants association was recently formed, but in lack of time they have not yet come to discuss this issue. Meria Eräpulku, is an assistant for a Finnish MEP.

“There should be some kind of system to protect us. I´m sorry to say that I don´t know why there isn´t one yet. It is disappointing”, she says.

Eva-Britt Svensson is also disappointed and deeply concerned in this issue. She thinks that there will be a long time before this problem can be solved.

“I want to bring this issue of sexual assault up to discussion in the parliament. But it is not as easy as it sounds. There is a matter of attitudes. Gender equality is not at all prioritized here. In order to approach other MEPs on this subject I have to make my own opinions very clear to them and then I have to listen with an open mind and take all different opinions into further discussion. It takes a long time and some people would not even admit that this is an existing issue within the European parliament”, says Eva-Britt Svensson.

About 35 percent of the members of the European parliament are female. Eva-Britt Svensson describes the atmosphere in the European parliament as very male-dominated. Wherever you go within the Parliament, you will find men opening the door for their female colleagues. On the International Women´s Day, all women received flowers. Although this can be viewed as considerate behavior, Eva-Britt Svensson says that a lot of women find this offensive.

“By giving me flowers on the day to remind us all about women´s independence, is more like treating it as Mothers Day. This is not gender equality. This behavior is very old fashioned”, says Eva-Britt Svensson.

Edward Scicluna is a member of the parliament from Malta, which is the only EU membership country who doesn´t have any female representatives. He tells the story of how growing up in a culture where women are expected to work within the household affected his gender perception.

“My first trip abroad was for a summer job in London, where I had a female boss. I remember that I resented taking orders from her. But after some time I realized that I had to change. But from this experience I can understand some mens´ difficulties of viewing women as equal. It’s our environment, upbringing and culture that teach us what is normal. But as we enter into the international world, it is up to us to view it objectively in order to understand it”, says Edward Scicluna.

When there is no safety net to fall back on, what can be done? Sari Essayah, a Finnish member of the parliament, believes that the only help you can get is to reach out to the press.

“Publicity puts pressure. If the girl in question would have proof then he would be an easy target for the press. But in most cases you can´t actually prove that someone made a sexist remark in private. But I still believe in making the issue public. It is the best way to deal with this problem right now”, says Sari Essayah.

And as this issue is being put into print, the fight for gender equality is slowly progressing within the European parliament. Eva-Britt Svensson is reaching for attention from other MEPs, trying to bring the issue of sexual harassment at their working place up to discussion. Assistants are gradually forming their own army of support. As the European Union is working for female rights in its membership countries, the walls of the European parliament is still a territory marking toleration for undermined views of female subjects.

Louise Wernvik

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