It is a truth universally acknowledged that in any online discussion of women's rights, someone will indignantly argue that there's too much focus on women and that men's rights should also feature in the debate. And now, the Eastern European country of Romania has enshrined this 'What about the men?' thinking into the arrangement of its public holidays by announcing earlier this month that November 19th would be celebrated as 'Men's Day'. According to the proposal that was approved by MPs, public authorities can organize events to celebrate the occasion, while public television and radio can broadcast 'programmes dedicated to promoting 'men's rights' for the day. While International Men's Day is celebrated in over 70 countries (the UK included), Romania is the first nation in the world to enshrine it in law.
Perhaps before it begins to celebrate men, Romania should focus a little more on improving the lives of its women, as, if the statistics are anything to go by, every day is men's day in the country. The World Economic Forum's numbers on equality of chances between men and women rank the country last in the European Union and 72nd worldwide. Even the law meant to enshrine the equality of men and women has a whiff of 'separate but equal' about it, saying that equality means "taking into consideration the different capacities, needs and aspirations of men and women and their equal treatment."
Add to the mix that Romania is that same European country where a young politician recently held a press conference to discuss the urgent matter of his loneliness and need for a girlfriend - specifically one that is good looking, intelligent and works in the justice system. Unsurprisingly, that party's boss is former President Traian Basescu who once called a female journalist a "filthy gipsy". All of this adds up to paint a picture of a country that simply isn't taking women's rights seriously.
However, while it's easy to scoff at Romania's blatantly unbashful celebration of males, the so-called enlightened West is not doing much better. There is a commonly held perception in the UK that the battle for women's rights was won long ago (the Suffragettes and the election of Margaret Thatcher spring to mind), thus rendering any debate moot. Indeed, feminism has somehow metamorphosed into a dirty word, so much so that only 7% of Britons will actually use it to describe themselves. Feminists are frequently disrespected, labelled 'feminazis' while the Oxford Dictionaries actually used the phrase 'rabid feminist' as a usage example for the word 'rabid'. When questioned, the lofty academics suggested that only a rabid feminist could possibly get upset by this.
But frankly, the UK could benefit from a shot of rabid feminism, as women continue to be disadvantaged in too many parts of life. According to the charity Rape Crisis, around 85,000 women are raped every year, and 1 in 5 women aged between 16 and 59 have experienced some form of sexual violence since the age of 16. However, when these women seek redress through the legal system, they are all too often let down. Just 13% of reported rapes end in a conviction in the UK and the care provided to rape and sexual assault victims by the Crown Prosecution Service has recently been declared to be falling "well short" of expected standards. Just last year someone who claimed that he only penetrated a sleeping teenager because he 'tripped' was cleared by a court.
Pay is still unequal too. Men working full time are still paid 14.2% more than women in equivalent positions. Campaigners have warned that because of how slow progress towards equal pay is, it will take some 54 years to reach parity. Recent research from the Fawcett Society has also found that sexism is rife in recruitment, with a survey revealing that recruiters were more than twice as likely (16%) to be against equality of opportunity, with one in seven managers believing that their businesses would lose out if men and women were more equal.
Women are also more likely to see their rights and quality of life eroded through recent changes to the welfare system. A recent report on the government's welfare reform programme by the Scottish Parliament's Welfare Reform Committee has found that changes to welfare in the UK are having a disproportionately negative impact on women. For example, the new Universal Credit system means that housing benefit will be paid to a single earner, most likely to be the man in the household, further aggravating women's financial isolation as it will lead to an "increased need for women to bargain and negotiate within the household, decreasing women's financial autonomy and independence." The report also cautions that the benefit cap will make it much more difficult for women to flee domestic violence.
The courts, the workplace, the welfare system: these are all places where equality is essential if women are to reach their full potential and be afforded all of their rights as citizens. Yet at the moment, women in the UK are still being disadvantaged in these areas by decisions made largely by men. While it's easy to eye-roll at Romania's 'international men's day', finger pointing should start right here, in the UK.