07 April 2004

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Enlargement, social policy and equal opportunities

Family and Social Solidarity Minister Dolores Cristina speaks at the opening session of the European conference on ‘Social Policy and Equal Opportunities in an Enlarged Europe’. Following are extracts from her speech, in which she vows the government’s commitment to reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion. She also highlights recent employment policies with a strong gender dimension aiming to increase current low female employment rates, to increase the high inactivity rate of predominantly middle-aged women and to achieve a balance between genders in terms of reconciling work and family commitments

Today, Malta stands on the threshold of integration within the European Union. Equality between women and men has been one of the fundamental principles of the EU since its very inception half way through the past century, with equal treatment legislation formulated over the past few decades to form a coherent legal framework which is now a firmly established and integral part of the acquis communitaire, an acquis that old and new member states alike bind themselves to respect.
Within our historical legacy, 40 years ago the Constitution of a newly independent Malta established a commitment to fundamental human rights; today ‘Malta is a democratic republic founded on work and on respect for the fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual.’
In the Constitution there are two provisions around which equality between the sexes centres, both provisions later amended to read, ‘the state shall promote the equal right of men and women to enjoy all economic, social and cultural, civil and political rights and for this purpose shall take appropriate measures to eliminate all forms of discrimination between the sexes by any person, organisation or enterprise; the state shall in particular aim at ensuring that women workers enjoy equal rights and the same wages for the same work as men.’
In 1987, the European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms became enforceable as part of Maltese law. The Employment and Services Act provides for the Constitution of the Employment and Training Corporation, whose function is to provide, as its name denotes, employment and training services and establishes discrimination on the basis of sex in these areas as an offence.
The Education Act amplifies constitutional provisions and remains the main legal instrument governing the provision of education, whereby it establishes the right to accessibility to all forms of training and education, to the acquirement of skills and to academic qualifications as a first step towards ensuring equality in the labour market. Whereas a few decades ago only a few exceptional and privileged women went to university, there are now more female than male students and graduates, with a remarkable shift of females towards areas other than those considered traditionally female. Initial income tax reforms and reforms in the Social Security Act provided an incentive to encourage married women to remain within the workforce, where their moving out is considered to be a loss of investment as well as of potential.
Amendments to the Civil Law have been hailed as a tremendous step forward for Maltese women and for Maltese society in general. The setting up of Government machinery, much-awaited changes to the Employment Regulations Act, the raising of awareness on gender mainstreaming, the coming into force of the Equality for Men and Women Act, as well as the implementation of family friendly measures have all led to further equality in terms of working conditions, access to training and protection from sexual harassment.
The Commission for the Promotion of Equality was formally appointed last January to act as the focal point on gender issues, and to provide the machinery for identifying, establishing and updating all policies related to issues of equality. The concept has shifted from one based on women’s rights to focussing on gender mainstreaming and equality of opportunity between women and men.
The EU accession process has highlighted and accelerated the need for legislation and policies to address particular issues hampering the promotion of equality, such as: the low participation rate of Maltese women in the labour market in comparison to the EU average and the very low rate of women in decision-making and representative positions, negatively affecting the true democratisation of our society.
A four-pronged approach to policy-making to tackle these issues must include the economic, social, legislative and cultural aspects, and clearly needs to take into consideration societal trends, changes in traditional family values: for example, the rise in number of single-parent families and increase in single person households. We must also consider demographic changes and ways of coping with an ageing population and a falling birth rate, the comparatively longer life-spans of women and the need to develop new approaches to funding for old age. Other trends include the ever-rising economic expectations and life-style changes, which may have far-reaching effects, for example, heavy financial responsibilities delaying parenthood.
Emphasis must be placed on the most vulnerable groups, including persons with disabilities and migrants. The commitment to empower women in the labour market was affirmed in the joint assessment of employment policy priorities. The Action Plan 2003-2004 on gender equality seeks to make the labour market equally inclusive of both women and men. Drastic measures appear to be necessary if Malta is to approximate the Lisbon employment targets by the year 2010. Quality jobs coupled with public policies and work practices that are family friendly remain of critical importance.
The obstacles faced by men and women and the differences between them are more pronounced in low-income groups. Women form the majority of economically-inactive persons and are thus particularly vulnerable to fall into the poverty trap. Without independent incomes, they face tremendous financial difficulties when confronted with family breakdowns, with illness and with domestic violence. Women are also vulnerable to poverty when older or living alone with children. Interrupted patterns of employment, non standard jobs, lower wage incomes combined with the effects of taxation and benefits can lead to lower incentives for them to engage in paid employment.
Recent employment policies in Malta have been given a strong gender dimension aiming to increase the current low female employment rate, to increase the high inactivity rate of predominantly middle-aged women, to achieve a balance between genders in terms of reconciling work and family commitments. The gender equality principle has been incorporated into the policy of creating an inclusive labour market, underpinned by the right to equal access to employment, working conditions and training, equal pay for work of equal value and to structures enabling a balance between family and job commitments. The lack of affordable and quality day-care services has to be addressed in order to reconcile work and family responsibilities. Moreover, further specific measures are necessary so as to ease the ‘double shift’ currently imposed on working women.
In Malta, atypical work is more common among women. It must be ensured that all workers engaged in this type of activity are adequately informed of their rights and obligations as regards social security, conditions of employment and taxation. National initiatives include larger empowerment training components, training in career development skills, mentor training programmes and research on the ‘glass ceiling’, among other things.
Abused women and victims of domestic violence are at the centre of gender-focused policies on family protection. The Family Division in the Civil Court, together with the enactment of new legal provisions, will ensure better services to victims of domestic violence who are mainly women. Recent years have seen the creation of a number of services in this area but improved co-ordination of existing services is called for.
In the field of housing, gender differences make themselves felt in several low-income social groups. A higher proportion of older age-groups, and women in particular, often live in substandard and inadequate conditions than is the case among other younger women in single-person households. Therefore, it is important to spread the positive effects of current policies on house care and repair services in order to raise the dwellings of these elderly persons to an acceptable and habitable standard.
The five ESF policy fields are to be given the attention they deserve in the Maltese economy and society. The Malta National Development Plan (NDP) 2003-2006 specifies the need for the country to capitalise on its human resources by encouraging greater female participation in employment, reducing literacy levels, and supporting its social target groups, while at the same time supporting efforts to alleviate social exclusion and poverty. In the social field, key issues defined by the Malta NDP 2003-2006 encompass those target groups, which are at the greatest risk of poverty and social exclusion. These include the elderly and the key issue of pension reform and its sustainability. Another issue centres on recipients of social benefits where abuse needs to be curtailed by promoting social inclusion rather than rewarding passive dependence on social benefits. We also need to focus on carers, who are declining in numbers, and need more attention, support and recognition.
The Maltese Government is fully committed to reduce the risk of poverty and social exclusion by improving the level of the several dimensions which constitute a threat to a quality social life in Malta.

Copyright © Newsworks Ltd. Malta.
Editor: Saviour Balzan
The Malta Financial & Business Times, Newsworks Ltd, Vjal ir-Rihan, San Gwann
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