International Women's Day is an important opportunity to reflect on where we are in our fight for gender equality in the UK, in Europe and around the world.
For those of us facing the UK referendum on EU membership this June, it is also extremely important to reflect on how much the EU has done, and continues to do, to promote women's rights and gender equality.
Since being elected as an MEP in 2014, I have been heavily involved in promoting the cause of gender equality within the European Parliament and beyond, most notably as an active member within the Women's Rights and Gender Equality Committee.
For women and men and persons of all gender identities who care about equality and social justice, guaranteeing rights and advancing equality is one more crucial reason that the UK must remain a member of the European Union, and lead the way towards a more equal Europe.
Gender equality is one of the core values of the European Union, and this was enshrined in its founding treaties. Throughout its history, the EU has been a progressive force advancing women's rights, non-discrimination, as well as LGBTI rights.
From its foundation, the EU pushed for employers to pay men and women equal wages for equal work, paid maternity and paternity leave. EU laws on return to work have meant that a woman's job must be held open so she can return to work without loss of status or pay. Many older women will remember the days when getting pregnant meant losing your job.
In previous mandates, Labour MEPs worked to secure rights for agency workers, which led to a European directive. More than half of agency workers are women, and now, due to EU legislation, agency workers now have more clearly defined rights. This means better access to childcare and the same rights as permanent staff, including pay and holidays.
The EU also guarantees equal rights to a pension. Pensioner poverty is a real problem for women many who have been excluded from company pension schemes because they took breaks to have children or because they worked part time. EU law now prevents discrimination and guarantees equal rights for all social security benefits.
The EU also works constantly on combatting violence against women. The European Protection Order is in place to protect victims, such as women who have suffered domestic abuse, across Europe. Those who have already been granted protection in one EU country, through a restraining order, for example, have similar protection if they move to another EU country.
Together with my Socialist and Democratic colleagues in the European Parliament's Gender Equality Committee, I have been working hard to push for more political action on VAWG at both EU and Member State level, and now finally our persistence has paid off. On March 4th 2016 the European Commission announced that it will finally propose ratification of the Istanbul Convention, the international treaty aimed at combatting VAWG.
This broad range of EU legislation, adopted democratically among Member State governments and the European Parliament has positively affected the life of every woman and man in the UK and across Europe. They are intended to establish a firm social dimension to the Common Market, agreeing on common high standards, so as to avoid Member States violating citizens' rights for big-business gains.
In the March 2016 plenary session, to mark International Women's Day, the European Parliament voted on a report which I have co-authored on advancing a gender equality perspective across all of the European Parliament's decision-making. One of the important innovations of the European Union is 'gender mainstreaming' - which means taking a gender perspective in all policy areas and legislation, across all sectors and at all levels. This is yet another important step in our common struggle, for women's rights and true gender equality.
The commitment to gender representation is reflected in the make-up of EU Parliamentarians. In the European Parliament 35% of members are women - much higher than the UK Parliament at 29%. Among Labour MEPs the statistics are even better, as 55% of our MEPs are women.
A gender perspective is not always obvious in the policy-making process, unless we make it explicit. For example, austerity policies and cuts to public services have a tendency to negatively impact women more than men.
I have also co-authored a report on the inclusion of gender-equality in anti-poverty policy, to make sure the exclusion of women, and LGBTI persons, and the obstacles they face are addressed. Austerity policy has impacted women disproportionately, and this is something we rarely take into account. My report, which will be is set to be voted on during the April plenary, seeks therefore to highlight the phenomena of the feminisation of poverty.
Take another issue which is in the headlines - during the ongoing refugee crisis, 55% of the refugees that have come to Europe are women and children. They require specific concerns to be addressed, such as protection from violence, proper sanitation, and access to health and education. The Parliament will be adopting another resolution on the situation of women refugees this session, co-authored by Labour MEP colleague, Mary Honeyball.
With a fresh commitment to advancing gender equality in its work and a striving to increase representation of women in decision-making, we hope for the European Parliament to set a global model of best practice.
The EU is an important platform for us to advance equality between men and women, and LGBTI persons in the UK and across the world. There's no doubt the UK, and British women and girls in particular, would lose out enormously if it were to step away. Now is the time for women and men to get engaged in the debate, to understand what is at stake, and to make sure that the UK remains an active member of the EU, leading the way towards an ever more equal Europe.