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'Don't force mothers to stay at home'

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'Don't force mothers to stay at home'
16:24 CET+01:00
The European Commission's proposed new directive on maternity leave is well-meaning but fatally flawed, argues Minister for EU Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson.

Though the year is 2010, in the eyes of many European politicians parenthood remains synonymous with motherhood. The EU Commission has proposed for maternity leave to be compulsory for the first six weeks after childbirth regardless of the wishes of the mother. Put simply, new mothers are to be banned from working. The issue is now in the hands of the democratically elected European Parliament, which is set to vote on the maternity leave directive in March.

The Alliance government is critical of the proposal as it risks diluting Swedish equality. On a personal level, if the proposal were to come into force it would prevent me from working. As a mother-to-be I would have had to turn down my new job as Swedish Minster for EU Affairs.

At the same time, we must bear in mind that the legislative proposal has a noble aim. For example, the legislative package promotes the right of mothers to take eighteen weeks' leave. In many member states, parental leave is woeful. In Austria, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands, for instance, mothers' right to leave is less than eighteen weeks. But a maternity leave directive incorporating forced leave is the wrong path to take.

The directive is also problematic in that it only mentions mothers as parents. We have to encourage parents to share both their parental leave and responsibility for their children. Europe needs more egalitarian dads, and the Commission's proposal is sending the wrong signals.

Family policies are dreadful in many parts of Europe despite the fact that equality between the sexes is a commonly held value in the EU. It is also a necessary prerequisite if we are to achieve the Union's goals for growth, employment and social cohesion.

Millions of women in Europe can't work at all, or at least not as much as they'd like to, because they are forced to take responsibility for their families. And several of the EU's member states don't offer childcare for children under the age of three. Also, state care for the elderly is often minimal, which means women often feel obliged to take care of ageing family members. Furthermore, joint taxation - which holds women back from the marketplace - remains a fact of life in many countries.

Many women in the EU now choose either not to have children and focus on their careers, or to give up their careers entirely when their children are born. Statistics show the effects: the EU has the world's best educated housewives. With ever more elderly men and women, the Union's population risks turning into Jurassic Park unless more children are born. Access to childcare is crucial if more people are to be able to combine their family and professional lives. In my view, we should not legislate on childcare at the EU level, but more EU countries do need to recognise the connection between childcare and economic growth.

Getting more women into the workplace is a pressing challenge for the EU. The untapped potential for higher GDP could be put to good use: more people working and paying tax would bolster the financing of our common welfare in a competitive global climate. Currently, an average of just six out of ten women in the EU are in gainful employment, dropping as low as four out of ten in certain countries. Men earn almost 20 percent more than women, and four times more women than men work part time.

Women in the EU also earn less than men, meaning that women's economic freedom is more limited. Ever since the 1700s, power over one's own wallet has been a cornerstone of liberal feminism. It's high time that politicians in Europe were inspired by our history. Women should not have to depend on their partners for an income.

The EU has official goals stating that women and men should have the same opportunities when it comes to combining work life, private life, and family life. It's time for Europe's politicians to start delivering. At my first EU meeting as Sweden's EU minister on February 22nd, I raised the argument that an equality perspective must become part of the Union's growth strategy. I am pleased to have received the support of EU Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič and Spanish Foreign Minster Miguel Angel Moratinos, whose country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

Increased equality is one of the EU's great challenges and more people need to wake up. Sweden is a pioneer when it comes to feminist issues, with radical family policies in an international perspective. We should not point the finger but we can inspire other countries in the EU. It should be a voluntary right for parents, not maternity leave by force.

A Swedish version of this article was published in Aftonbladet (24/2). Translation: The Local.

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