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What is the State of Women’s Rights in Cyprus?

FRIDAY FILE: How do women fare in the prosperous Mediterranean nation of Cyprus?

By Kathambi Kinoti

Cyprus is a nation with a rich cultural history that stretches back over many centuries.Its modern history has been dominated by the territorial conflict between Turkey and Greece, and it is a unique nation, prosperous in some ways and challenged in others.

Girls and boys have equal access to education, and at higher education institutions,young women outperform men by number and by performance.

Cyprus has acceded to the European Union and therefore has access to a progressive normative framework for gender equality. Under EU norms, not only does Cyprus have the framework, it also has the obligation to fulfill gender equality, and due to its accession to the EU, it has an enabling legislative framework.

Cyprus has adopted several national action plans to address domestic (‘family’) violence,human trafficking, poverty and social exclusion. However, these policies are generally not accompanied by the political will or resources needed for their implementation and they remain aspirations.

Tradition, culture and religion play an important role in preserving the patriarchal structure of Cypriot society. “From education to political representation, from violence against women to sexual and reproductive rights – traditional values and rigid gender roles are pervasive,”says Susana Pavlou, the Director of the Mediterranean Institute of Gender Studies (MIGS). Domestic violence, sexuality and sexual and reproductive rights are still taboo subjects and gender stereotyping by the media persists.The powerful Greek Orthodox Church contributes to the perpetuation of stereotypical gender roles and mores, including in relation to sexual andreproductive rights. It opposes abortion for whatever reason and the laws of Cyprus reflect this philosophy.

Political participation

On the political front, Cypriot women have made slow progress. They are critically underrepresented in national governance structures. Only three percent of mayors are women, and a fifth of senior level civil servants and members of the municipal councils are female. In the nation’s 2001 parliamentary elections, six out of eighty-five women candidates won seats. In the 2005 elections, the number of seats won by women increased to just eight despite a strong advocacy campaign by the Cyprus National Machinery for Women’s Rights. In that election there were 128 women candidates. Two women Members of Parliament were in 2009 elected to the European Parliament, and while this is a positive thing, it depleted the numbers of women in the Cypriot national assembly.

On the whole, there is an increase in the number of women getting actively involved in politics, but the rate of change is not reflected in poll results. To Susana Pavlou,this fact demonstrates that Cypriot society is yet to fully embrace the idea of women as political leaders, and the media is not helping the cause. It does not give equitable coverage to women political candidates or gender equality issues and it perpetuates gender stereotypes. The scarcity of representations of women in power means that there is a scarcity of role models for politically ambitious girls and women. Not only is there under-representation, there is misrepresentation too of the roles that women can and do play.

On the other hand, there appears to be greater political will to assign more women key appointive positions. In recent years,women have been appointed Law Commissioner, Ombudsman, Auditor-General, Deputy Accountant-General and Commissioner for the Protection of Personal Data.

Women still disproportionately bear the responsibility of taking care of children, and the absence of high quality affordable childcare hinders many women from participating more actively in political and public life.

Pavlou suggests that “the inexorable patriarchal structure of political parties in Cyprus, and the enduring conservative features of Cypriot society that still do not trust women to hold high office” play an enduring role in the lack of confidence and support networks for women wishing to enter political life. She points out that Cyprus has been extremely reluctant to employ affirmative action even on a temporary basis as prescribed by the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which the state ratified in 1985.

Women and work

More and more Cypriot women are entering the job market. By 2007 at least 62 percent of women were employed outside the home.However, there is a wide gender-determined pay gap: Women predominantly occupy lower-pay positions, typically working in health, education and domestic work.

Many women interrupt their careers to raise their children and for them, re-entry into the job market is difficult. These issues contribute to a longer-term disadvantage for women: later in life they end up being entitled to lower pensions owing to their lower initial pay and also the interruption of their careers. As a consequence, they are more dependent on social benefits, and as Pavlou points out: “In fact, elderly women in Cyprus face the highest poverty risk in Europe at a rate of 52 percent.”

Cyprus, with its links to continental Europe, is increasingly a transit point for migrants. It is also a destination for people from Asia and Africa who seek a better life for themselves. Migrants are vulnerable to exploitation and abuse, and laws and policies in the nation do not offer adequate protection.

Violence against women

Reports of domestic violence, rape and other forms of sexual violence have risen dramatically in the last decade, according to Pavlou. The increase in reporting can be attributed to a heightened awareness of women’s rights and a relatively good family violence statute. Still, she says, the absence of studies in the area masks the under-reporting of such crimes.

One of the biggest challenges in combating violence against women in Cyprus is the reference to ‘family violence.’ Laws and policies prohibit family violence but do not specifically refer to violence against women. The gender neutrality of their language does not recognize women as the primary victims of such violence although over 80 percent of victims of ‘family violence’ are female, and this form of violence is obviously gendered. Since governmental and non-governmental services work within the framework of ‘family violence’, a critical gender perspective is lost. According to Pavlou,despite a shocking increase in reported rates of sexual assault, Cyprus has no specific services for survivors, and has some of the lowest conviction rates for sexual offences in Europe.

Trafficking in women for sexual exploitation is a huge challenge in Cyprus. Pavlou says that despite a number of policy measures taken to address the issue, it continues to flourish. MIGS advocates for policy measures to address the root causes of trafficking in women.

The state of the women’s movement

Human rights activism in Cyprus is expanding and its major focus of operation is around migration, sexual and reproductive rights and trafficking. The Cyprus Women’s Lobby (CWL) was formed in 2008 to amplify the voices of advocates for women’s rights and gender equality. The CWL is a member of the European Women’s Lobby, the largest umbrella organization of women associations in Europe.

Cyprus does not have a strong history of civil society organising. Pavlou says: “Civil society in Cyprus is traditionally weak and suffers from lack of funding and expertise.” She attributes these challenges to the fact that ethnic conflict dominates the national agenda and creates an environment that is not conducive to human rights activism. In this environment, women’s rights advocates’ primary channels are political parties and trade unions. Despite the fact that these avenues provide opportunities to women, they limit the reach of women’s rights activism. Nevertheless,the arena for women’s rights activism continues to expand and with it come greater freedoms for women.