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True gender equality is a pillar of democracy. World Forum in Strasbourg

The theme of this year’s World Forum for Democracy, promoted by the Council of Europe, is “Gender equality: Whose battle?” Experts, activists, youths, politicians from world countries convened in the Alsatian city to attend the three-day event (ongoing until November 21). Stories of inequality, discrimination and violence that still afflict women today. Claude Chirac called for "complementarity, harmony and respect.” The speech of CoE Deputy Secretary General Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni. The tragic experience of Japanese journalist Shiori Ito

Power is the matter at stake. But it’s more than that, since gender equality at the World Forum for Democracy that opened in Strasbourg on November 19 tackled a wide range of issues. “Equality in political representation is a condition for democracy”, argued Gabriella Battaini-Dragoni, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe, presenting a set of figures: the number of female CEOs of top companies in the EU amount to 16%; among 193 UN Member States, only 9 women are Heads of Government; in the judiciary, women justices account for a third of all supreme court judges and to 25% in constitutional courts. The point is not a matter of “quotas for women.” Indeed, the CoE supports this criteria  because “it has been adopted in 17 CoE Countries and the latter proved to be more successful in terms of gender equality as compared to Countries that failed to adopt it”, Bettaini-Dragoni pointed out. Yet there are requests to move beyond equality.
“Complementarity.” “I have difficulties with the term ‘equality’”, said Claude Chirac speaking at the hemicycle. She is the daughter of former French President Jacques Chirac. Today she serves as Vice-President of the Foundation that bears her father’s name that over the past years awarded women for their commitment for peace, “in recognition of their fundamental role in this area.” Men and women are marked by “differences and specificities”; “complementarity, respect and harmony are the words I prefer.” She explained that “complementarity contributes to the success of digital economy as it pools different talents: the digital sphere simplifies horizontal cooperation.” In terms of respect, movements such as “me too”, in addition to complaints, invite us to be more respectful of each other. If we were more respectful, regardless of our differences, we would all be happier.” Finally, harmony: “the sole source of progress. Successful coexistence prompts the progress of civilization.”

Rights and opportunities. Panel speakers included a man, Philippe Muyters,  the Flemish Minister of Labour who tried to expand the gender equality discourse to include talent, claiming that the weak link in the chain in Europe is “enjoying equal rights without equal opportunities.” “In an ideal world skills and talents are the only qualities that count, and a balanced team is perfect, because diversity brings huge benefits. The clan is on the opposite side of the spectrum. Multidisciplinarity and diversity are the best elements to face today’s challenges.” For Minister Muyters “we must be aware of differences and enhance them”, whichever they may be. It is necessary to overcome “conscious and unconscious prejudices, clichés and stereotyping”, for “a short step separates prejudice from discrimination. There is need for a radical cultural transformation” and for “successful women that can become role models that inspire other women.” In conclusion: “It’s a shame that in 2018 we still need a meeting on gender equality. The point should be ‘Empowering talents’, not ‘empowering women’, but until then we work in support of women”, for “there will be equality only when it will cease to be an end in itself, when thinking and acting in diversity will come natural and will no longer need to be a goal yet to be attained.”
Violence and complicity. A widespread, worrying aspect of men-women relations is related to violence – sexual or psychological alike – against women. The issue was addressed during the Forum by Shiori Ito, Japanese journalist who shared her personal experience: she was raped by a co-worker, a “high-ranking journalist”, in 2015. The assault forced her to go through a “difficult process.” In fact the police rejected her request to file a criminal complaint; even after having collected evidence and witnesses, the court closed the case. With no support whatsoever Shiori thus decided to publically denounce her assailant, but once again she paid the consequences and was forced into hiding in London to save her life and that of her family. Six months later the “me too” movement was created, the New York Times reported the story of Shiori, which became known also in Japan. Her testimony tackles several issues: “power unbalance” often characterising victim and perpetrator dynamics, Japanese society that fails to protect women, the potential of the internet which “allows you to speak out, but where you are also exposed to harassment”, the possibility of “mutual encouragement, sharing and support” between women today; the importance of believing the truth that women tell us, and finally “the education of children and of young generations, including adult men.”

Against all forms of discrimination. Sexism, discrimination and violence, although they are different behaviours they all require a commitment that is not only passive (to talk about it) but active, spreading onto different areas propounded by Canadian Ambassador to the UN Rosemary McCarney: men “must be partners in this commitment”, in order to eradicate this form of violence; children must be taught their rights and responsibilities towards their peers; “negative behaviours and bad practices must be stigmatized”; it is necessary to demand “high-level political commitment” in this struggle. “Inclusion is a choice”, she declared, that must make women feel that they belong. In the words of  Farrah Khan: “We need to make sure not to only open the door to women, but make sure that they’re safe and protected once they’re there.”

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