Since the 1990s EU policies for employment and growth have focused on employment as the main source of growth and social cohesion. It is true that the European Social Model and the guarantee of a high level of protection of employment and social security have oriented EU funding (through the European Social Fund) to the creation of employment. The long-term unemployed were identified as the most vulnerable group.
The current economic crisis and the emergence of new vulnerable groups at risk of poverty have led to policies geared towards measures like a minimum income, etc. However, if EU policies address poverty as an individual characteristic and not as a structural problem, women (more probably) will risk falling into a “poverty trap” from which neither a minimum income nor low salaries can rescue them. The double and triple burdens of paid and unpaid work are central to this risk during economic recession.
In this context, policies need to tackle gendered poverty in a multifaceted and holistic way. Micro and community policies are useful for integrating the living and working conditions in everyday life. A social innovation approach may be helpful for designing measures and actions. For women in the working poor, support with childcare and other social infrastructure as well as the provision of universal social services may reduce the gender division of labour in paid and unpaid work. For women with low pensions, the restructuring of social security schemes and pension reform are necessary, in particular when gender differences in working life are taken into consideration.
EU policy guidelines on economic policy and the use of the EU Structural Funds are useful for promoting objectives like gender mainstreaming and gender equality. However, they have to be more specific about how gender will be mainstreamed at different stages (policy design, debate and implementation of policies) and what paths member states should follow in order to integrate gender into the measures in question. It remains doubtful whether member states, especially those facing financial debt and growing unemployment, will be inclined toward mainstreaming gender equality in their structural adjustment plans. In other words, if member states do not undertake the obligation to mainstream gender equality in a more concrete and direct way in policies and in government budget planning, it is doubtful whether this “silent crisis” will be reversed and whether poverty will stop reproducing gender inequalities.
In fact, one of the main consequences of the low priority of gender mainstreaming in most EU member states that are experiencing the impact of the crisis more severely is that the potentially positive impact of a gender-sensitive approach to poverty is being undervalued. While certain groups of vulnerable women, e.g. pensioners and single parents, may be targeted as vulnerable groups, issues like the gender gap in employment, wages, and unemployment, as well as precarious work in feminised sectors, remain outside policy decisions, design and implementation. Policies targeting poverty in the EU tend to neglect how the crisis affects men and women differently, and as a result they are more likely to fail to address the gender aspects of poverty.
Referring to the perspectives and opportunities offered by EU funding through the European Social Fund (on the basis of Article 7) the European Community of Practice on Gender Mainstreaming (Gender CoP) argued that:
“The CPR Regulation 2014–2020 focuses on gender equality objectives and the dual gender equality approach more than in previous funding periods. But requirements that gender equality be integrated into all steps of planning and programming, as well as into procedures and thematic issues/areas of intervention (and that this needs to be reflected in all chapters and articles of the regulation) are lacking.”
It is evident that a dual approach (specific actions benefiting the groups of vulnerable women, as well as effective gender mainstreaming throughout the policy cycle of actions funded by the European Social Fund 2014–2020) is an important tool for tackling poverty, especially that of women.
A holistic approach to public policy making should in principle address (at least) five policy objectives:
1. Better analysis of gendered dimensions of poverty, by introducing new indicators that give more accurate data on gender in all forms of precarious employment, especially in feminised sectors, across the EU. More and better research on the gender-specific impacts of austerity measures, especially the impact of budget cuts on female employment rates and on forms for reconciliation of professional, family and personal life may contribute to a better understanding of gendered impacts of poverty.
2. Effective gender mainstreaming in legislation and regulations for employment and social security, by monitoring the implementation of labour rights in precarious feminised sectors of the economy, such as paid domestic work and care. Pension schemes also need restructuring to counterbalance gender gaps in pensions and encourage universal and income-based systems of social security.
3. Effective gender mainstreaming of economic and social policies, in particular through the economic and financial agreements between the European Union and the member states (for example introduction of a gender equality perspective in national programmes for structural adjustment).
4. Development of specific gender-equality measures for the most vulnerable groups of people (where women are the majority): single parents, precarious workers, unemployed youth, low-income pensioners, migrants and ethnic minorities.
5. Reinforcement of democratic decision making, by encouraging the participation of women in political decision making, in particular in economic and financial sectors. Support for gender-sensitive public debates on democracy may challenge racist, homophobic and violent attitudes.