Women’s rights have come a long way since the beginning of the century. In countries around the world, women have fought tirelessly for many of the freedoms that their male counterparts already enjoy, from the right to vote to the right against discrimination. The women of Belgium are no exception from these movements. Here are five facts about women’s rights in Belgium.
5 Facts About Women’s Rights in Belgium
- Belgium was one of the last European countries to introduce women’s suffrage. Despite some Belgian women earning their right to vote in 1919, Belgium was one of the last European countries to acknowledge women’s suffrage and women’s demands for voting rights. The only country to allow it after Belgium was Greece. The lag in women’s suffrage was mainly due to early women’s rights advocates such as Marie Popelin and Isala Van Diest, who chose to focus first on improving women’s education and legal equality in Belgium before advocating for equal voting rights. Additionally, during this time, many members of the socialist and liberal parties did not trust women with the right to vote, fearing that women would vote too conservatively and would give their overwhelming support to the Catholic parties under the influence of the priest. However, this proved untrue when women officially received the same voting rights as their male counterparts.
- Women did not fully gain voting rights until 1948. Women in Belgium, as in many other countries in the world, did not enjoy the same freedoms as men when it came to engaging in politics for a long time. They first received the right to vote in 1919; however, these rights had heavy restrictions in that only specific women could vote. Only mothers and widows of servicemen who died in World War I, mothers and widows of citizens “shot or killed by the enemy” and female prisoners who “had been held by the enemy” initially obtained the right to vote. In 1920, all Belgian women, with the exception of prostitutes and sex workers, received the right to vote in municipal elections. It was not until 1948 that Belgian men and women enjoyed the same voting rights in parliamentary elections. The first parliamentary election in which women participated took place on June 26, 1949.
- The number of women in Belgian politics has been steadily rising. In the past, the Belgian Parliament had been heavily male-dominated. However, thanks to policies like the Quota Act, this has been changing, a major win for women’s rights in Belgium. Belgium first introduced the Quota Act in 1994 but updated acts have since emerged. The most recent Quota Act imposed a 50–50 quota for every election list and required that the two candidates at the top of the list not be of the same gender. Election lists that do not comply with the Quota Act are automatically nullified. This helps prevent political parties from participating in elections if they are unwilling or unable to abide by the quota rules. By 2019, women held 42% of positions in parliament. Sophie Wilmès is the current prime minister of Belgium and is also the first woman to hold this post in the country. Increasing the number of women in Belgian politics helps to expand women’s rights in Belgium.
- Belgium is closing its workforce gender gap. In 2020, Belgium ranked 27th out of 153 countries in the Global Gender Gap Report, which “benchmarks countries on their progress towards gender parity across four thematic dimensions: Economic Participation and Opportunity, Educational Attainment, Health and Survival, and Political Empowerment.” The workforce gender gap has also been closing over the years. The overall labor force participation rate for women 20-64 years old in Belgium is 63% (2.34 million women) compared to 72.3% for men (2.66 million men). Despite the increasing number of women entering the workforce over the years, there are still disparities between men and women in the workforce. When examining board members in Belgian companies, women only hold 30.7% of the seats while 69.3% of men hold the rest. There is also a discrepancy between men and women when it comes to wage earnings in Belgium. The pay gap in Belgium was 21% in 2017 and the pension gap was 28%. Despite the wage gap closing, women in Belgium are still more vulnerable than men to living in poverty. In 2018, women were two percentage points higher than men in reports on the poverty level in the country.
- Belgium implemented the accelerated Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The Beijing Declaration was a resolution that the United Nations adopted in September 1995 at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women. The resolution established a set of principles aimed at addressing the inequality between men and women. In 2015, Belgium partnered with UN Women to introduce the full, effective and accelerated implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. The accelerated commitment outlined six main tactics for addressing gender inequality: (1) investing in gender equality at the national and international levels, (2) updating or establishing new action plans, strategies and policies on gender equality, (3) enhancing women’s leadership and participation at all levels of decision-making, (4) introducing new laws or reviewing and implementing existing ones to promote gender equality, (5) preventing and addressing social norms and stereotypes that condone gender inequality, discrimination and violence and (6) launching public mobilization and national campaigns to promote gender equality. One area that has seen improvement from the implementation of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action is women’s participation in politics throughout Belgium.
While women’s rights in Belgium have dramatically improved over the years, these five facts show that there is still room for improvement within the country. On International Women’s Day in 2019, over 5,000 female demonstrators went on strike in Brussels to campaign for women’s rights and gender equality. Despite Belgium’s best efforts, there is still more the country must do to ensure total equality between the rights of men and women.
– Sara Holm