Women's march with banner reading 'Women's rights are human rights'

We are fighting for a coherent and ambitious strategy for gender equality, tackling persisting inequalities through a holistic approach and defending women's rights in the EU. Raising awareness is not enough: equality must be at the core of all European policies and in all the Commission’s work.

Key issues for us include closing the gender pay and pension gap, defending women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, getting women on boards and in top decision-making roles, putting the Work-Life Balance Directive into action, fighting trafficking and sexual and labour exploitation, and stamping out violence against women.


Find out more about our work in the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.

Women’s rights and Covid-19

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the S&Ds have called for a proactive, gender-sensitive response to the crisis and its aftermath. Domestic and gender-based violence have increased, sexual and reproductive health and rights have been attacked, and experience from previous crises suggests that women's financial situations will be disproportionally impacted in the long term. The poverty rate for women was expected to decrease by 2.7% between 2019 and 2021, but projections by UN Women and UNDP now point to an increase of 9.1% due to the pandemic and its fallout.

Women are on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic, as they are disproportionally represented in professions with high risks of exposure in hospitals, shops, schools and care homes, and in sectors where job losses are high. Many are also suffering due to a widening of the digital gender gap and the gender divide in unpaid care work. At the same time, women in these sectors are rarely involved in decision-making, due to the glass ceilings in our societies.

We cannot afford to let this pandemic become a gender-equality crisis. The disproportionate effect on women requires a progressive and gender-sensitive approach, for both immediate and long-term action, on a national and EU level. We are once again calling on the Commission and the member states to put gender equality and women’s rights at the heart of the Covid recovery and resilience plans. If we want to repair the economic and social damage done by this crisis, it is crucial we increase women’s participation in the labour market and strengthen the connection between climate-change policies, digital policies and gender equality.

For more details see our position paper A progressive gender-sensitive approach to the Covid-19 crisis.

Violence against women

In Europe, seven women are killed every day and one woman in three has been physically and/or sexually assaulted at least once in her lifetime. Women are also the vast majority of victims of trafficking, particularly for sexual exploitation and prostitution.

While the 2011 Anti-Trafficking Directive sets out specific actions to tackle this form of violence, the European Commission is still ignoring the European Parliament's call for comprehensive legislation to combat violence against women. In addition, only 21 EU countries have ratified the Istanbul Convention on combating violence against women.

Violence against women is one of the main obstacles to real equality between women and men. The S&Ds continue to urge the Commission to come up with a directive to tackle gender-based violence and call on all member states to sign and ratify the Istanbul Convention. We call on the Commission to submit a proposal to add gender-based violence to the list of EU crimes.

Equal pay and pension gap

60% of all university graduates are women. Yet women in the EU earn 14.8% less than men on average, so women are effectively working two months a year for no pay. In the longer term, lower salaries result in lower pensions, which can lead to an increased risk of poverty. The pension gap between women and men is around 36%.

The directive setting out the principle of equal pay and equal treatment at work for men and women was adopted in 1975 and has been regularly updated, but unless there are radical changes to the present situation, equal pay will not become a reality before 2084.

The S&Ds want action now for a new, updated directive on equal pay which can effectively cut the gender pay gap by 2% a year, with clear sanctions for EU countries that do not apply it. The European Commission must come up with binding measures to finally end pay inequalities in Europe. The long-announced directive on pay transparency would be an important step. It must not be delayed any longer! 


The EU's goal for 2020 is a 75% employment rate for all, but the current employment rate for women is only 67.4% – a 7.6% gap. According to the OECD (the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development), the number of women taking up informal and unpaid jobs is rising. Worryingly, austerity measures have affected women more harshly than men. Budget cuts have had the biggest impact on the public sector – where many women work – about 80% of the 'working poor' are women and more than a third of older women in the European Union receive no form of pension. The feminisation of poverty is increasing: women are more at risk of falling into poverty than men.

Low-paid and insecure jobs must be replaced by sustainable jobs. We continue to work towards this goal, calling for an end to counter-productive austerity measures and for strong gender-equality objectives to be included in the EU 2020 strategy and in the European Semester economic cycle.

Maternity, paternity and parental leave

Since the beginning of the economic crisis, the birth rate in Europe has fallen. This is partly due to the fact that women and men are not always allowed adequate maternity, paternity and parental leave.

Current maternity leave legislation allows for 14 weeks, with various different systems of payment across Europe. In April 2019, the Work-Life Balance Directive was finally adopted. The S&Ds have fought for many years for the adoption of a legally binding instrument such as this. We therefore welcomed the introduction of paternity leave of ten working days, parental leave of four months, and carers’ leave of five days per year to workers providing personal care or support to a relative. The extension of the right to request flexible working arrangements to carers and working parents is also an achievement for which the S&Ds have fought long and hard.

We will insist that the Commission takes its responsibility to monitor the implementation of the Directive seriously so that working parents and those caring for a relative in Europe have better protection.  Children are the future of the EU. While the adoption of this Directive is certainly a step forward, more needs to be done. That is why the S&Ds are also calling for real improvements in accessible, affordable, high-quality childcare to reach the Barcelona targets, so that both women and men are able to balance work and family life.

My body, my rights

Sexual and reproductive health and rights are a key priority for us. This includes sex education, avoiding unwanted pregnancies, access to safe abortions, treatment for sexually transmitted diseases and tackling sexual violence.

Currently abortion is still illegal in two member states, while pre- and post-natal health services have been hit hard by the crisis. Today, many women in Europe do not have access to contraception and safe abortions, restricting their right to choose on sexual and reproductive issues.

In 2015, our MEPs signed the "All of us" declaration for abortion rights.

The rights of women to make decisions about their own bodies are fundamental and should be included in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The S&Ds also want a strong, coherent section on sexual and reproductive health and rights built into the EU's public health strategy.

Women in decision-making

Women still make up a very low proportion of elected representatives in national parliaments: between 9% and 43% across the EU. Currently, in the European Parliament only 39% of MEPs are female, a very small increase since the 2014 elections. However, our Group has almost achieved an equal gender balance, with 44% women MEPs and a majority of women in the Group's leadership team, but more needs to be done to promote equality in political life.

Women on company boards are even scarcer.  On average just 20% of company board members are women – whereas in Norway they have achieved 40% through introducing legal quotas.

Quotas have become necessary to achieve gender equality. The S&Ds call on the member states to finally take action and adopt the so-called Women on Boards Directive, which introduces an open and transparent procedure to reach a minimum of 40% of women on non-executive boards of EU companies. The European Commission presented the proposal back in 2012, the European Parliament adopted its position the following year and since then it has been blocked by a minority of member states in the Council. 

Social inclusion

In 1995, the international community adopted the Beijing Platform for Action, identifying 12 critical areas for fostering gender equality. 2020 marks the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform, and yet women continue to suffer from violence, poverty, discrimination and social exclusion more than men, and are not able to fully exercise their sexual and reproductive rights.

Equality cannot be achieved unless EU countries put in place effective policies to promote gender equality: the S&Ds insist that all countries must fully apply the commitments they adopted in Beijing.

The UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) demanded equal access for girls and boys at all levels of education by 2015. This has mostly been achieved in primary education, but not at higher levels, with girls still facing greater barriers than boys. The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have set new targets regarding gender equality which are to be achieved by 2030. Empowering girls and women all over the world through education is essential – that is why the S&Ds urge the EU to support all developing countries to achieve these goals.

Women refugees

In 2018, about 115,000 people crossed the Mediterranean.

Women and children account for around 35% of refugees.

We need to highlight the exceptionally vulnerable situation of women asylum seekers and refugees in the European Union. They have fled persecution in their home countries only to undertake a perilous journey in order to reach a place of safety. On arrival at reception centres, these already vulnerable women — who may be victims of sexual violence, trafficking or other violent crimes — face additional barriers, making them even more vulnerable. Our Group is calling for measures to ensure that asylum procedures are gender-sensitive and that women's needs are met throughout the asylum process. These measures include: gender-specific training for staff including comprehensive training on sexual violence, trafficking and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM); specific sleeping and sanitation facilities; the right to request female interviewers and interpreters; access to gender-sensitive health services including pre-natal and post-natal care; providing childcare during screening and asylum interviews; and the right for women to lodge a claim for asylum independent of their spouse to empower them. We are also calling for an end of detention for children and pregnant women seeking asylum.

Gender-based violence, such as rape, sexual violence, FGM or forced marriage should be a valid reason for seeking asylum in the EU. As far as the integration of refugees is concerned, our Group is calling for facilitation of access to the labour market; access to language classes and education; access to childcare and family reunification and recognition of qualifications obtained abroad.

Campaign against sexist advertising

Media and advertising have a strong impact on our awareness and attitudes. Many studies have shown that sexism and negative stereotypes of women prevail in today’s advertisements and contribute to justifying and perpetuating inequalities between genders. The Socialists and Democrats have long been combatting sexist advertising, which goes against our principles of gender equality. This initiative to fight against sexism in advertising was launched on International Women’s Day 2018.

A Charter of commitment against sexist advertising was drafted by the S&D Group in close cooperation with the PES Group in the Committee of Regions so that local representatives such as mayors and councils could join the platform to help combat this form of discrimination.


Next on the playlist

Press releases

Press release
No to foreign financing of organisations pushing for abortion ban in Europe!
Press release
The 2022 budget of the EU will have a strong, progressive core, focused on social and green issues
Press release
S&Ds appalled by the Turkish government’s decision to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention


Covid-19: Overcoming New Challenges to Gender Equality - Sixth Progressive Youth Forum - 4 & 5 March 2021

Related publications

The milestones in our fight against anti-gypsyism
Position paper
Let's unblock the "maternity leave" directive! Or why this is not an old-fashioned text
International Women's Day, Friday 8 March 2013 - Manifesto by the S&D Group

Related Documents

Charter of commitment against sexist advertising