In order to address this question, I will provide a brief overview of the issue of stigmatisation of lone mothers then discuss how EU law and EU policy provide bases for EU action on the issue, before exploring what the EU has done regarding lone mothers. Then I will address action which the EU could take through its various institutions and bodies, particularly the role of the Commission and the Fundamental Rights Agency. The tools which could be used – such as directives and the Open Method of Co-ordination – will be evaluated, as will the action the EU could take in the areas of educating professionals and the community about stigmatisation, and tackling negative media portrayals of lone mothers. Finally, I will conclude by presenting an overview of the effectiveness of current EU action and how it could be better coordinated for improved efficiency.
Stigmatisation of lone mothers Stigmatisation of lone mothers can be broken down into three basic forms: political/governmental, media, and academic/professional. Since the early 1990s the media have been fuelling discrimination and stigmatization of lone mothers as promiscuous, irresponsible and in poverty. In the UK, the lone mother discourse is often confused with the teenage pregnancy discourse with myths about increasing rates of teenage pregnancy and most lone mothers being teenagers disseminated by both the media and politicians; in fact teenage pregnancy has been steadily declining since the 1970s (Rowlingson and Mackay 2002:9) and only 3-4% of lone mothers are teenagers.The problem of academic/professional stigmatisation is less widely known; an example and is Murray (1993) who described lone mothers as creators of the ‘underclass’; his theories have been discredited (Ellwood and Bane 1985; Garfinkel and McLanahan 1986; Bane and Jargowsky 1988.) The right wing think-tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs, deliberately published several books demonising lone mothers. Discourses around lone motherhood frequently define lone mothers in problematic terms (Duncan and Edwards 1999; Mann and Roseneil 1994), such as a ‘social problem’, a theme which occurs in a range of professional literature (Popay, Rimmer and Rossitter 1983:23). Political/governmental stigmatisation is fuelled by, and in turn perpetuates, media stigmatisation. An example of political stigmatisation is the fact that the then UK Home Secretary suggested that [lone] unmarried mothers should give up their children for adoption.. Lone mother families are not always seen as families. The Irish Constitution Art 41.2 states: “The State, therefore, guarantees to protect the Family in its constitution and authority, as the necessary basis of social order and as indispensable to the welfare of the Nation and the State.” This appears to be beneficial to lone mother families as family is highly valued. However Art 41.3.1 makes a clear political statement that lone mothers (and several other family forms) are non-families and it is the legal bond of marriage which separates the family that is to be protected from the family that is to be combatted and eventually destroyed: “The State pledges itself to guard with special care the institution of Marriage, on which Family is founded and to protect it against attack [emphasis mine].” Rowlingson and McKay (2002:92) claimed the UK government discriminated against lone parent families in the 1994 Supporting Families Green Paper. Some Member States openly favour the couple family and are trying to reduce the number of lone mother families, especially those headed by young lone mothers, which is a type of social engineering (Solinger 2000).
The Result: social attitudes As a result of the above discourse, lone parents experience stigma from the community and wider society (O’Higgins 1974, Darling 1984 Maraden 1973; May 2011; Polakow, Halskov and Jorgensen 2001). Furthermore, the stigma had devastating consequences in the case of Birmingham CC v H , where a 16 year old lone mother was denied all future contact with her baby, a decision which according to Jackson breached Art 9 of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which the UK became a party to in 1991. Jackson claims that the court were only able to reach such a decision because of the demonization of lone mothers in the media and political discourse.
Section 1: Bases for EU Action
EU Law So, having been assured of the existence of negative attitudes towards lone mothers, and of the need for tackling the problem, we now turn our attention towards the question of whether the European Union (hereinafter EU) has been given competence to tackle the issue. I contend that not only is this the case but in fact the EU is obliged to act. I will discuss the general obligation to act on the issue before discussing EU competence, action and effectiveness in relation to narrower facets of the issue such as social attitudes, media portrayals and gender roles.
Why is the EU so obliged? Firstly, being a lone mother is a right. A human being may choose to be a lone parent and this right is protected – or at least not infringed upon – by the legal systems of most democratic countries. Art 6 TEU 3) states “Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the member states, shall constitute general principles of the union’s law.”
The right to become a lone parent is a constitutional tradition common to the member states; there are no laws against single pregnancy, separation or divorce nor laws which force single parents to cohabit in any of the EU states. Article 6 may be a two-prong requirement (constitutional traditions plus ECHR guarantee) but even if this is so, the right to be a lone mother satisfies the requirement as it is also guaranteed by the ECHR: Article 8 ECHR guarantees a right to respect for private life, including regarding the family and home. Stigmatising and demonising lone mother homes is an infringement of private life, and certainly shows no respect for it.
Apart from this obligation, however, the EU is obliged to act by virtue of its charter; Art 6 1) TEU holds that “The Union recognises the rights, freedoms and principles set out in the Charter of Fundamental Rights…which shall have the same legal value as the Treaties.” Relevant provisions are: Art 1 “Human dignity is inviolable. It must be respected and protected”, Art 7 “everyone has the right to respect for his or her private and family life”, Art 9 “The right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed”, Art 21 “Any discrimination based on any ground such as sex…social origin…membership of a national minority [or] birth….shall be prohibited.” Art 22 states “The Union shall respect cultural…diversity”; Art 23 “Equality between men and women must be ensured in all areas” and finally Art 24 provides that “Children shall have the right to such protection and care as is necessary. They may express their views freely.”
Art 1 could be useful as the dignity of lone mothers is affected by stigma, especially media portrayals of lone mothers. Art 7 is useful as stigmatisation of lone mothers is disrespectful of their private, family and home life. Political and media stigmatisation – if not academic stigmatisation also – arguably interfere with this right. Negative social attitudes and media stigmatisation interfere with the right to marry and found a family as women may be discouraged from having children due to social censure and thus be ‘peer pressured’ into giving up this right (Art 9). Lone mothers could fall under Art 21 as members of a minority, or as being stigmatised on grounds of sex (as male lone parents are not stigmatised.) Alternatively their children could be protected by the prohibitions on discrimination due to birth or social origin. Lone mothers could also be included in Art 22 as they are numerous enough, while still being a minority group, to represent cultural diversity. Art 24 may be utilised in protecting the children of lone mothers from the effects of stigmatisation. Art 23 is particularly useful as it states that equality between the genders must be ensured “in all areas” leaving unlimited scope for interpretation, where the issue of lone mothers and equal freedom to choose family forms without suffering discrimination could most certainly fall, as equality in all areas will never be realised until women have the same reproductive freedom and sexual freedom as men. Therefore several Charter bases exist; however, Arts 7, 21 and 23 are the most concrete bases for EU action.
Art 51 provides that the scope of the Charter extends to all institutions, agencies and offices of the EU and the Member States – an EU-wide remit – but only when implementing EU law. Therefore, to achieve any real protection in member states, it would be wisest for the EU to use directives rather than ‘soft law’ as the member states are not under any legal obligation to implement ‘soft law’ and therefore the Charter would not apply to the member state but only to the EU while the member state implements ‘soft law’. That being said, ‘hard law’ and ‘soft law’ have various advantages and disadvantages, which will be explored further.
Protocol (no 30) states that nothing in Title IV creates justiciable rights applicable to the UK and the Charter does not extend the ECJ’S powers regarding the UK and Poland; as justiciable rights are available under the Treaties and the Charter is not aimed at extending the powers of the ECJ, this protocol does not limit the Charter’s remit in relation to the current issue. Furthermore, as the rights of lone parent families are general principles of EU law so the EU must take account of lone mothers even when not implementing EU law. Therefore, the general principles doctrine offers better protection for lone parent families than the Charter does.
Art 2 TEU states “The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, freedom…equality…respect for human rights, including the rights of persons belonging to minorities. These values are common to the member states in a society in which pluralism, non-discrimination, tolerance, justice, solidarity and equality between women and men prevail.” The very foundation of the EU, then, is opposed to discrimination, intolerance, gender inequality, constraints upon choosing family form or lifestyle (freedom) and violations of human dignity, which may be applicable to media portrayals of lone mothers as promiscuous scroungers. Lone mothers are also minorities.
Art 19 1) TEU provides that “The Council, acting unanimously in accordance with a special legislative procedure and after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament, may take appropriate action to combat discrimination based on sex…” While Art 19 2) states “the European Parliament and the Council, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, may adopt the basic principles of Union incentive measures, excluding any harmonisation of the laws and regulations of the member states, to support action taken by the member states in order to contribute to the achievement of the objectives referred to in paragraph 1.”
Therefore, the EU is obligated to act to combat stigmatisation of lone mothers as it is discrimination based on sex. The only limit on the EU’s actions is that the EU cannot go as far as harmonisation.
Art 6 (3 TEU states: “Fundamental rights, as guaranteed by the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms and as they result from the constitutional traditions common to the member states, shall constitute general principles of the union’s law.”
Art 6 sets out a two-prong test for laws to constitute general principles of EU law: firstly they must be guaranteed by the ECHR and secondly they must result from constitutional traditions. As the EU member states have all ratified the ECHR, the ECHR is a common constitutional tradition and therefore satisfies both ‘prongs’; the rights set out in the ECHR therefore are general principles of EU law.
Art 8 ECHR (respect for private and family life, similarly to Art 7 of the EU Charter) is very relevant, especially considering that the European Court of human rights interpreted respect for family life as including children of unmarried parents and single unmarried mothers. ‘Family life’ also exists where the parents are living separately at the time of the child’s birth. Art 12 ECHR concerns the right to marry and the right to found a family; the word ‘and’ signifies that these are two separate rights. Stigmatization of lone mothers may negatively impact on women’s exercise of their right to found a family. As art 14 ECHR prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, this means that men cannot be freer to found a family than women.
Having established that the EU has an obligation to recognise women’s rights to be lone mothers, it must be deduced how far that obligation extends – is it simply not to worsen the problems faced by lone mothers, or is there a positive onus on the EU to actively combat such stigmatisation? This point is unclear in the Treaties; one could argue it one way or the other. A more sound argument can be framed by studying the activities of the EU with regard to lone mother families and discrimination more generally; if it can be proved that the EU’s institutions have created binding policy in regard to actively protecting rights of lone mothers and/or actively combating stigmatisation (whether in relation to lone mothers or not) there is an argument that the EU has bound itself to combat stigmatisation of lone mothers. Likewise, the EU’s commitment to equality between men and women implies that women should not benefit less from EU involvement in protecting rights than men do; so if men are benefiting from anti-discrimination/stigmatisation action taken by the EU, there is a case for saying that the EU should protect women from discrimination as much as men including in the field of discrimination related to family form.
The rights of children of lone mothers (who are affected by the stigma as discussed above) must be protected by the EU as promotion of children’s rights are enshrined in Art 3 TEU and Article 24 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union elaborates on those rights.
Non-EU Law The UN Conventions on Civil and Political Rights and the Rights of the Child have only a tenuous utility, although all the Member States of the EU have ratified the UN CRC. However Art 12 of Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides, similarly to Art 8 ECHR and Art 7 of the EU Charter provides: “No-one shall be subjected to arbitrary or unlawful interference with his privacy, family, home or correspondence”. The Convention is not binding on the EU as the EU is not a signatory, but it is influential as its member states are signatories and the EU is legally bound by Art 3(5) TEU to “support…the principles of international law including respect for the principles of the United Nations Charter” and by Art 21(2) TEU to “strict observance…of international law”.
Art 174 TFEU states that the EU should “pursue actions leading to the strengthening of its economic…[and] social cohesion.” Furthermore, the Council of Ministers responsible for family affairs agreed that the EU should take action in support of families on the basis that as the family is a recognised social and economic unit and must be protected by society, it is legitimate for the EU to act. The decision was not justified by reference to EU law. The EU was not given competence to formulate a Community policy; its involvement was restricted to gathering information, including family dimensions in EC social policy such as freedom of movement or gender equality and monitoring the impact of social policy on the family.
The Community framework strategy for gender equality recognises women’s rights as human rights and commits to promoting gender equality in civil life and change of gender roles and stereotypes.The European Commission strengthened and deepened its commitment to equality between women and men with a Women’s Charter.
The EU has been trying to combat the stigma of mental health issues and that of business failure. As the issue of business failure is more directly related to the EU’s economic goals than the issue of lone mothers or the issue of mental health, I will focus on the EU’s work on mental health in order to make the analysis more comparable. In November 2010 a Thematic Conference Combating Stigma and Promoting Social Inclusion organised by the European Commission and Portuguese Ministry of Health was held in Lisbon, evidencing that the EU is taking this issue quite seriously. The EU has claimed that “Stigma in relation to mental illness has a negative impact on equality and social inclusion”. As stigma in relation to lone parent families also as a negative impact on precisely these two areas, the EU should take action against stigmatisation of lone parents as well.
Economic Bases The EU’s Europe 2020 strategy consists of five ambitious objectives including employment, innovation and social inclusion to be reached by 2020. The EU aims to “eradicate child poverty, promote the active inclusion in society and the labour market of the most vulnerable groups and overcome discrimination and increase the integration of people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, immigrants and other vulnerable groups.” The EU plays coordinating role in combating poverty and social exclusion by identifying best practices and promoting mutual learning, setting up EU-wide rules and one of its “key actions” is better use of EU funds to support social inclusion and combat discrimination. Lone mothers could fall under the category of “most vulnerable groups” whose active inclusion in the labour market should be encouraged, and also under the category of “other vulnerable groups” who need to be protected from discrimination. Not only does the EU have an obligation under Europe 2020 to protect them from discrimination, discrimination itself experienced by lone mothers directly undermines the goals of Europe 2020 as it discourages lone mothers from entering the labour market. In Malta, lone parenthood has been on the rise in recent years and lone parents have a higher chance of ending up in poverty than other families. In 2007, the Monitoring and Evaluation Unit of the Employment and Training Corporation (ETC) published a study on lone mothers in poverty, which found that the mothers “experienced stigma and prejudice at the workplace and they felt as if they were looked down upon by their co-workers”. The European Working Conditions Observatory concluded that “A respectful environment at work…would also help more lone mothers to enter or return to the labour market.”
The EU should seriously consider targeting lone mothers’ poverty as its current progress means that it will fail to reach its goal of lifting 20 million people out of poverty and social exclusion by 2020. The EU will fall short of Europe 2020 employment targets and “no substantial progress” was made in this area during 2011 . Child poverty still persists at a high level and was not adequately addressed by the Lisbon Strategy.The EU acknowledges that “The risk [of child poverty] increases [over] 30% for children who live with lone parents… lone parent [families] face the highest risk of in-work poverty. The lack of affordable childcare hinders their full participation in the labour market.” A focus on childcare provision may help to get more lone mothers into employment; female participation in the labour force and childcare provision as an incentive were flagged up by the Lisbon strategy. Discrimination resulting in fewer employment opportunities may hinder lone mothers’ ability to exercise their free movement rights under Art 45(1) TFEU.
The Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men represents the European Commission’s work program on gender equality for the period 2010-2015. The strategy highlights the contribution of gender equality to economic growth and sustainable development and supports the implementation of the gender equality dimension in the Europe 2020 Strategy. According to the EESC, “In addition to being an aim in itself, equality between women and men is a prerequisite for meeting the EU’s aims for employment and social cohesion.”
The Strategy builds on the priorities of the Women’s Charter and appears to be a firm economically-oriented foundation for EU action with lone mothers, as stigma results from perceived gender roles; furthermore, the constraint on women choosing family forms is a form of gender inequality. The European Social Fund (ESF) has introduced a gender-mainstreaming approach and the EQUAL initiative was launched in 2000 to develop new ways of tackling discrimination and exclusion in the labour market including that which is based on gender., which may be beneficial to lone mothers who are stigmatised at work such as those in Malta. The ESF promotes partnerships between NGOs and public administrations to facilitate reforms in the field of employment and inclusion.
Lastly, the fact that a head of state of an EU Member State (David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK) has signed a pledge in 2010 to tackle prejudice against single parents, should make the EU take notice of this problem. Although the pledge was not legally binding by either UK or EU law, it does indicate the will of EU citizens and the UK Government (119 politicians signed the pledge). The positions of UK and German NGOS (discussed further below) also demonstrates the opinion of civil society.
The Commission has created self-binding policy on promoting gender equality, tackling stigma and helping lone parent families. The EU in general has bound itself to actively promoting (as opposed to simply respecting gender equality in accordance with EU law) gender equality through the policies mentioned above, and also by creating an Institute for Gender Equality.
Section 2: What Has the EU Done So Far?
Roll’s 1992 report to the Commission about single parent families raised the question of whether single parent families are really different from two-parent families – a less stigmatizing view of lone parents which was addressed for the first time to the European Union. However the report focused only on how the EU could combat poverty and made no mention of the discrimination faced by single parent families.
The flagship initiative ‘European platform against poverty’ requests EU Member States to promote shared collective and individual responsibility in combating poverty and social exclusion and to define and implement measures addressing the specific circumstances of groups at “particular risk”, including one-parent families. The Special report 2/2005 on the European Economy discusses lone parents’ poverty.
As early as 1995, European funding for Projects Seeking to Overcome Social Exclusion included Ayuntamiento de Basauri Bilbao (Actions to help lone mothers looking after their children), Association of Járvenpáá Tenants and Homeowners (Helping teenage parents to rebuild their lives); and CLAM (developing access to citizens’ rights for young unmarried mothers) among several other programs aimed at lone mothers. Likewise, the EU’s Youth in Action programme targets young people who have ‘social obstacles’ to employment including young or single parents and those from such households. The ESF funds projects which promote social inclusion, including UK charity Community Links’ Family Links project which aimed at finding jobs for unemployed homeless single parents while another project aimed at finding work for young parents in Germany; the beneficiaries were mostly young lone mothers.
The EU has claimed through a Press release that “The need for action [through family policies] is exemplified by the high risk of poverty to which single-parent families are exposed”. The EU has chosen to describe single parents publically on the ESF’s website as “one of the most vulnerable groups in society” and frequently refers to them as in poverty or at risk. On the one hand this is beneficial as such a label will encourage the EU to take action; however, it means that lone parents must ‘buy-in’ to the stigma and accept being problematized in order to receive any EU interest and funding at all. The action taken by the EU may not include tackling stigma but only tackling poverty, further perpetuating the ‘lone mothers are all in poverty’ discourse and negative perceptions of single parenthood.
In sum, the EU has done a great deal for lone parents but only in the areas of poverty and unemployment, which, while indirectly helping to reduce stigma (because unemployed lone mothers receive more discrimination than employed lone mothers) has not tackled the root of the issue. The focus on poverty is too narrow and may only further the myth that single mothers are in need of help; a broader focus to include stigma would get more lone parents into employment (achieving the EU’s economic goals) and would ensure gender equality and combat discrimination (fulfilling the EU’s objectives in these fields).
Section 3: What Actions can the EU Take?
Political Empowerment In the run-up to the last UK General Election, the NGO Gingerbread launched a campaign, Let’s Lose the Labels, against stigmatisation of lone parents. 119 politicians including David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Gordon Brown signed Gingerbread’s pledge to “tackle prejudice against single parents”. The German NGO, Association of Single Mothers and Fathers, called on lone parents to join the campaign “Help! I am being helped” against all three types of stigmatisation which I identified above: media, political/governmental and academic/professional. It also questions the presentation of all lone parents as a homogenous group (a point raised by Roll in the 1992 Report to the Commission.) The EU institutions (especially the Commission which formulates policy and is keen to involve civil society in the policy making process) should take notice of this section of European civil society.
The Commission’s PROGRESS programme supports policy development work relating to employment, working conditions, gender equality, social inclusion and social protection, non-discrimination and diversity; lone mothers could be included under all of these categories except working conditions. To apply for funding, eligible organisations – including NGOs – must respond to a call for tenders or a call for proposals. This would give NGOs such as Gingerbread and the National Council for One Parent families an opportunity to receive funding, but actual achievement of objectives is left entirely up to the capabilities of the bodies themselves.
The Citizens for Europe programme provides civil society organisations and think tanks at European level with operating grants covering part of their running costs, and financial support to projects implemented by organisations at local, regional, national or European level. However, the projects in question must address issues of European interest and raise awareness of solutions that can be found through coordination at EU level, a criteria that may be challenging for organisations to fulfil.
The Commission is committed to involving NGOs in policy development. This commitment would give NGOs an opportunity to take the issue of stigmatisation to the attention of the Commission, which could raise awareness of the issue with other bodies of the EU such as the EP, EESC, ESF and FRA through its Communications.
Platforms Winnet, a network of European Women Resource Centres was created to improve efficiency and transparency of women’s rights NGOs and therefore improve gender equality policies and tools. However the cooperation between NGOs and political influence generated thereby was small compared to the achievements of platforms. The FRA’s fundamental rights platform provides NGOs with the opportunity to influence the FRA’s agenda, policy development and research and indeed One Family, an Irish organisation aiming at equality for one-parent families is a participant. The platform is a laudable achievement in itself, but Commission-centred platforms influence EU policy as a whole, not just fundamental rights policy, and have a more direct impact on the content of directives. There are several EU platforms but I will focus on the multilingualism platform as, since it focuses on a sociocultural issue and targets society within member states, is of more relevance than other platforms which target, for example, corporations or non-EU governments.
The EU’s multilingualism platform draws different NGOs together, transforming a fragmented section of society into a more solid base for action. This ‘platforms’ model could be used to put different NGOs from across the EU (For example, the British and German NGOs mentioned above) in contact and partnership with each other, creating a strong political force better equipped to educate society and governments about the issue and push for political and/or educational reform on this issue. NGOs in the UK working for lone parents have been successful in advising government and lobbying (Appleton and Byrne 2003:213) so there may be great potential for action if a platform were to be created. In addition, the multilingualism platform provides for a permanent dialogue between the Commission and NGOs, which would be of great value to NGOs such as Gingerbread, as lone mothers currently have no voice at EU level and a very limited voice in their own states. The multilingualism platform gives NGOs the opportunity to develop proposals for education and training and also encourage public debate, so modules for social workers and other professionals on stigmatisation, for example, might become a real possibility as would public debate on, say, how governmental approval or disapproval of certain family forms affects their citizens’ basic rights, sexual or reproductive freedom and the position of women in society. Indeed, European Commissioner Padraig Flynn recognised as long ago as 1994 that the Commission had a “particularly important role to play in identifying the…ways the Member States react to these changes in family patterns, and in stimulating Union-wide debate on the subject of the family”.
Impact assessments on the effect of EU policy on women are carried out by each DG of the Commission which is a laudable achievement; impact assessments on lone mothers would be often irrelevant to EU policy, so although the Commission should develop impact assessments on lone mothers these will probably be used only in relation to economic, social, education, media or employment policy.
The FRA devotes one of the chapters of its Annual Report on Fundamental Rights to the rights of the child and the protection of children and in 2009 published a report on “Developing indicators for the protection, respect and promotion of the rights of the child in the European Union”. These indicators provide a toolkit to evaluate the impact of EU law and policy on children’s experience including family environment, education and citizenship. They are intended to guide the Agency’s data collection and research, allowing it to develop evidence-based advice to EU institutions and Member States. Ideally, the FRA should study and report on how stigma against lone mothers impacts on the rights and welfare of their children in the areas mentioned above. The FRA may be likely to do this once the issue of stigmatisation is made known to it, as although the issue of how lone mothers’ children are affected by stigma is very specific, the FRA has experience researching specific child rights issues: it has published a study on discrimination and social marginalization faced by Muslim youth, and included children’s issues in its survey on violence against women, among other actions.
In addition, the FRA discussed children’ rights in ‘Child Friendliness and the Community’, a conference organised by UNICEF Switzerland on 31 October 2011 which engaged regional and local authorities in implementing the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. The FRA could also conduct research on the experience of lone mothers themselves and how EU law and policy could address this issue; as the stigma is connected to sexuality and gender roles, the FRA already as experience in researching gender-based and sexuality-based discrimination in the context of LGBT rights. The EU Network of Independent Experts, which gathers data on fundamental rights protection in the EU, could gather data in cooperation with the FRA, a method of monitoring favoured by Scheinin. The Network has presented a report on children’s rights which are affected by stigmatisation of families.
Forms of direct action which impact more directly on the Member States may be opposed by Ireland as stigmatisation of lone mothers is exacerbated by Catholicism. Ireland may vote against proposals for direct tackling of stigma in the Council of Ministers. Alternatively, Ireland may feel that stigmatisation can be combatted without compromising its citizens’ faith or that decreased stigmatisation of lone mothers will lead to less abortions among single women and therefore may take a neutral or positive stance to EU action. This issue, while important, will not be explored further for reasons of space.
So far the EU has focused on lone parents themselves when attempting to help them, and through the ESF has funded grassroots projects on this premise. However, if prejudice is to be tackled effectively, efforts must be focused on societal attitudes, the media, the community and politicians. There is little point in boosting the self-esteem of individuals in lone parent families if stereotyping and exclusion continues. To give the EU institutions a concrete basis for this new direction, a Commission Communication to the EP, FRA and institutions which work at a more regional or local level such as the ESF and EESC may be useful. The Commission could also seek inter-institutional agreements on this with the EP and/or the Council of Ministers which may be legally binding, by virtue of Art 295 TFEU.
Council Framework directives are transposed as they are written with no opportunity for Member States to decided how best to fit them into their domestic legal systems; a framework directive may not work well within domestic systems and may be perceived as intrusive by Member States. In addition, because Framework Directives are simply ‘dropped into’ domestic legal systems, they do not allow Member States to increase protection for lone mothers beyond the requirements of the directive as ordinary directives do. It may also not be necessary to take such action for such a specific issue as stigmatisation. Therefore ordinary directives seem to be a better choice.
Why the need for directives?
The ECJ may tackle issues of stigmatisation through case-law, should such cases be brought before it. However, in Grogan which concerned abortion, the ECJ refused to consider the case as a moral or cultural issue so it can be inferred that without lone mother families’ rights enshrined in a directive the ECJ is unlikely to consider such cases as moral/ethical or cultural issues should such cases come before it; this may impact on the ECJ’s ability to protect lone mothers’ rights. Furthermore, the issue of stigmatisation against lone mothers may not be likely to come before the ECJ. Thus, directives are needed to address stigmatisation rather than using the OMC alone.
Inadequacy of existing directives
The Gender Equality Directive does not include marital and family status discrimination, a point raised by Power. Perhaps the directive should be amended to include this type of discrimination, in the light of the Irish case of Flynn v Power in which the fact that Ireland’s Employment Equality Act 1998 (S37) allows educational institutions to give more favourable treatment to an employee to protect the ethos of the institution meant that it was held that being an unmarried mother constituted a justified reason for immediate dismissal upon knowledge of the pregnancy. The Framework Employment Directive Article 4(2) does not justify any type of discrimination (apart from religious belief, which was irrelevant to this case) however as marital and family status are not within the scope of the directive, the directive was not useful in Flynn v Power. Directive 2002/73/EC protects women from being dismissed for reasons connected with pregnancy and the ECJ has recognised that grounds linked to gender such as pregnancy constitute direct – not indirect – discrimination. Flynn v Power therefore directly contradicts EU Law and values. The proposed Equal Treatment directive enhances legal protection against sex discrimination and in Art 2(3) classifies verbal harassment as discrimination, which may make it easier for lone mothers to prove they have experienced discrimination as this is the type of discrimination they often receive. The prohibition of discrimination extends to education and provision of housing, areas in which lone mothers often face discrimination in Denmark (Polakow, Halskov and Jorgensen 2001) so is advantageous to lone mothers.
Thus, amending existing directives or creating a new directive may be an avenue the EU should explore. Directives affect Member States’ laws and may have a limited effect on social attitudes. However the very fact that stigmatisation becomes illegal once the directive is transposed may raise awareness and a slight effect on attitudes may result.
Discrimination: recognising intersectionality A step forward for the EU would be to recognise intersectionality in discrimination, when multiple grounds of discrimination interact; for example Solanke (2008) discusses young black males being discriminated because of age, race and gender – not any one of these bases, but the combination of all of them. Burri, Koldinski, Mulder and Schiek also discuss intersectionality. Skeje (2008) claims that Norwegian public policy has compartmentalized the different strands of discrimination and made intersectionality difficult to tackle as each ‘base’ is tackled as a separate type of discrimination. Bacik describes how Ireland’s Employment Equality Act s32 prohibits harassment in relation to several grounds but not sex or gender as that would be sexual harassment covered in s 23; so it will not help in the situation where a lone mother is bullied at work (as happened in Malta) because lone mothers are discriminated partly because of gender. Marital or family status are not covered by the Act. This is a good example of equality law failing to work because of intersectionality; Flynn v Power is another example. The Gender Equality Directive and the proposed Equal Treatment Directive do not recognise intersectionality.
The EU’s FRA appears much better equipped than member states’ equality bodies to handle intersectionality because it is a single agency dealing with all types of discrimination – the complete opposite of the ‘compartmentalizing’ which can occur when different agencies handle different types of discrimination. With reference to lone mothers the bases for discrimination would be gender, marital status and family status and for young lone mothers it could be age, gender, marital and family status; for separated but not divorced mothers it would be gender and family status.
The Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) There is no reason why the FRA should not concern itself with civil and political rights such as the right to found a family and the right to respect for private and family life  though the fact that these rights form part of EU law as discussed above is a more sound basis on which the FRA can act. The FRA’s role in direct action could lie in using conferences and publications in addition to communications with other EU bodies such as the EP and the Commission to start a discourse over whether combatting lone parenthood and teenage pregnancy, (thus destroying certain family forms to make way for, or in favour of, the ‘chosen’ family form of the couple family) is legitimate in a democratic society. Such publications, conferences etc. could also address the ‘hard questions’ of whether governments do – or should – have the right to decide which family forms are to be reduced in numbers; or, if choosing which family forms to eradicate is indeed ethical, which body(ies) or individuals should be awarded this right.
Harman (2010) highlights a need for social services to be more aware of social disapproval directed at white lone mothers of mixed race children. As the FRA has a long tradition of combating racism and xenophobia, the stigma experienced by lone mothers of mixed children could fall within this remit as although the mothers are white, the discrimination directed at them has its basis in racism and is harmful to the children concerned. Alternatively, recognition of intersectionality could enable the FRA to help the lone mothers as victims of multiple discrimination.
Since public authorities and academic or research institutions as well as educational bodies are all entitled to apply for funding under the PROGRESS programme, the FRA could bring this issue to the attention of such bodies through its pamphlets or alternatively work with the Commission to encourage NGOs to contact academic institutions or public authorities to inform them about funding for research or projects relating to lone mothers. The FRA’s ‘Joined-Up Governance’ project, which works with local authorities to enhance fundamental rights implementation through mutual learning involves research on the policy areas of anti-discrimination, gender equality and social cohesion. However, the project involves only five Member States and will end in December 2012; extending the duration and the number of states involved may prove more effective.
Other Agencies and Advisory Bodies
The European Institute for Gender Equality and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights cooperation agreement, which entered into force on 23 November 2010, in Art 1 states an objective to “…strengthen the promotion of human rights and gender equality…optimising the impact of all initiatives taken within the EU with the aim to improve equality between women and men in Europe.” Art 2 sets out the extent of co-operation as mainly consulting, researching, exchanging information and making joint press releases. The agreement can be terminated; Art 7 requires they assist each other in communicating but makes no other requirements. In general, it appears to be a weak agreement with little real transformative potential; strengthening this agreement would be an ideal step for the FRA to take in order to be fully supported as it begins to tackle this novel issue. As lone mother stigmatisation is related to gender, these two agencies seem ideally placed to join forces.
According to Hantrais (2004) a report published by the Commission in 1994 extended the European Observatory on National Family Policies’ definition of family policy to cover policies targeting families as groups rather than individuals, including social and fiscal policies and the private sector; the Observatory’s remit was extended to cover labour market and employment policy. Therefore, there are many fields in which the Observatory could assist lone mothers, including in regard to employment and poverty as well as stigma. For example with regard to employment policy, the Observatory could attempt to make sure lone mothers are not discriminated against; the Observatory has long recognised lone parenthood as a family form.
The EU can take action in support of families but the restriction of such action to information gathering and monitoring will not be effective. The EU recognises that family policies must be “modernised” to take account of lone parent families especially in the context of poverty and in 2007 the EESC adopted an opinion on sharing best practices on family policy and changing family forms among Member States. The EU could, through the OMC, promote more ethical and lone mother-friendly national family policy models, such as theSeventh French Socio-Economic Development Plan (1976) which includes family policy as part of a strategy for such development and states that its number one priority is to make the community more well-disposed towards mothers and children. Alternatively the EU could create its own family policy (without harmonisation of the laws of Member States) though this could result in problems concerning subsidiarity. Family policy has been seen as a tool of sexual repression (Haensch 1969) which is used to favour nuclear families and discriminate against all other family forms (Peters 1980); however family policy can also be used to protect family diversity (Hantrais 2004).
Eliminating Discrimination within the EU institutions themselves The opinion of the EESC which stated a desire to “Enable couples to decide how many children they would like to have, the Member States should introduce a range of measures such as direct financial support, changes in taxation, and [childcare facilities]” appears to encourage states to confer benefits on couple families but not lone parent families. The Commission used the term “broken families” and defined children from such families as having social obstacles to employment and social inclusion. It has been suggested that the FRA should play a leading and co-ordinating role in the training of EU officials in the field of human rights which may help to reduce discrimination against lone mothers by EU officials and therefore EU institutions.
Soft Law The Commission could use the OMC to encourage the sharing of best practices among Member States on how to tackle stigmatisation with the use of indicators and National Action Plans (NAPs) to help them achieve targets. However the EU will have to make sure that national targets are enough to meet any EU targets, something which it failed to do with the Europe 2020 strategy, where even if all national targets on employment are met, the EU would still fall short of the EU target. The OMC usually involves the creation of EU guidelines as well as National Action Plans (NAPs) for the Member States which are evaluated by the Commission and as not all OMCs use all the different OMC tools, it would be advisable for the EU to concentrate on developing and reviewing NAPs rather than place too much emphasis on indicators, benchmarks and goals, except insofar as these are needed for the NAPs themselves. This is because stigmatisation and the social attitudes which result are complex, often subtle social phenomena that will not be easily measured or quantified by national governments or a supranational bureaucracy. NAPs however are developed in partnership with NGOs (Szyszczak 2006) which will give NGOs the opportunity to develop dialogue with national governments, which may effect more change than analysis and review of indicators or benchmarks. The focus should be on developing dialogue between national governments, the EU and civil society. Although the OMC increases ‘elitist’ participation by necessity (Chalmers and Lodge 2003) and lessens transparency and accountability (Okma and Berghman 2003; Smismans 2004; de la Porte and Nanz 2004), the opportunity for mutual learning and civil society dialogue (Trubek and Trubek 2005) is invaluable given the current ‘invisibility’ and pathologization of lone mother families.
The OMC although non-binding and allowing for a pretence of co-operation by Member States rather than real progress (Radaelli 2003a; Scharpf 2002; 2003) may still be effective (Hemerijck and Berghman 2004; Ferrerra 2001; Rodrigues 2001; Vandenbroucke 2002) and if the OMC proved not effective enough there are other options open to the EU. Scharpf (2002) has proposed the use of framework directives combined with OMC to coordinate Member State action which could in turn provide information for revision of the framework; indeed this is already the case in the area of employment law and employment policy (Trubek and Trubek 2005). Ultimately the best results will be likely to be achieved by using a combination of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ law as in the field of environmental policy.
ART 167 TFEU allows the EU to “contribute to the flowering of the cultures of the member states while respecting their national and regional diversity”. Art 167 4) concerns actions under other Treaty provisions, where the EU must take cultural aspects into account and respect and promote the diversity of its cultures. The UN CEDAW Convention of December 1979, which came into force in September 1981 Art 5 required that measures should be taken “To modify the social and cultural patterns of conduct of men and women, with a view to achieving the elimination of prejudices and customary and all other practices which are based on the idea of…stereotyped roles for men and women.” The EU is legally bound to obey this Convention by the Treaties, as discussed above.
Lone mothers are stigmatised because they are seen as promiscuous (Dowd 1999). This is because of a form of sex discrimination, referred to as the sexual double standard which is still prevalent in society (Friedman 1996; Schwarz and Rutter 1998) which leads to stigmatisation of women but not men)who are dubbed ‘promiscuous’ including lone mothers (Lees 1983:51; Wilson 1978:71). This is harmful to women (Dinnerstein 2002; Heidensohn 1996). The double standard as a cultural pattern based on the stereotype of passive, asexual feminity, falls under Art 5 of the Convention. As the EU is legally bound to obey international law it must therefore modify the double standard.
In a Communication the Commission stressed that it is “committed to…disseminating good practice on redefining gender roles in youth, education, culture…” A redefinition of gender roles in culture is significant to the issue under discussion, as it is primarily the cultural role of women as being partnered mothers, as opposed to single mothers, which leads to discrimination. The Institute for Gender Equality could address these issues at a local, grassroots level or encourage member states to include discussion of gender roles and lone motherhood in schools and encourage academic research into the issue. The ESF could fund community projects and youth projects which address the issues. The FRA’s role would ideally be to include gender roles in its research on lone mothers and communicate the results of this research to the Institute for Gender Equality, which it already has a cooperation agreement with. In addition, as the FRA frequently publishes pamphlets on rights issues, it could create pamphlets aimed at parents/guardians to help them raise children who do not subscribe to gender role stereotypes, or pamphlets aimed at young people about the harm to women and society posed by the double standard.
Art 165 TFEU allows the EU to take action in the field of education but only by supporting and supplementing Member State action so large-scale changes to curricula cannot be made; this is not an obstacle as combatting stigmatisation may be best achieved within Personal and Social Development (or equivalent) primary and secondary school courses and does not require large modifications to existing courses. Such action does not contravene the Art 165 requirement of respecting Member States’ cultural diversity as lone parenthood is itself a form of cultural diversity, this action is promoting cultural diversity.
As long as the EU complies with the procedure in Art 165 4) of the EP and Council consulting the EESC and the Committee of the Regions and acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative procedure, it is free to adopt incentive measures to combat stigmatisation. As the Committee of the Regions plays an important role in the process of adoption of incentive measures, it would be useful if the FRA’s research on stigmatisation would be sent to the Committee before the consultation with the EP and the Council. The Strategy for Equality Between Women and Men requires the Commission to promote gender equality in all its policies, including the priorities of dignity, integrity and horizontal issues (gender roles, legislation and governance tools) which would include legislation regarding education. Stigmatisation would fall under ‘dignity’ and/or ‘integrity’. Another basis for EU action is the Commission’s Roadmap for Equality between Women and Men 2006-2010 which fosters the elimination of gender stereotypes in the media and propose as key actions to “support awareness-raising campaigns and exchange of good practices in schools and enterprises on non-stereotyped gender roles”.
According to the EESC “In order to combat gender stereotypes, there is a need to: educate children and young people….The EESC would welcome the inclusion of gender equality as a specific priority in EU education and training programmes. ” Similarly, the Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men suggested that the EU should develop and fund training programmes on anti-discrimination and gender stereotypes for media professionals; this may indirectly reduce negative portrayals of lone mothers.
The EU could, through the OMC, encourage Member States to include information about the problem of the double standard in sex education or personal and social development courses in schools. As the EU Institute for Gender Equality has published a pamphlet on training employees about gender issues for local authorities; a similar publication on stigma training may be a good first step. Funding could be provided to train social workers about stigma faced by lone mothers, as Harman (2010) suggested would be beneficial. The European Network for Education and Training benefited from a grant under the Europe for Citizens scheme, so encouraging beneficiaries of EU funding to develop stigma training programmes may be helpful.
Media The EP and Council have both identified the media as one of the factors which influences attitudes towards equality between men and women. The Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men’s Opinion on ‘Breaking gender stereotypes in the media’ claimed that women are often depicted in the media in traditional roles; encouraging media depictions of independent women may help European citizens celebrate women’s choice over their families’ forms. The Audiovisual Media Services Directive binds Member States to ensure that audiovisual media services provided by media service providers under their jurisdiction do not contain any incitement to hatred based on sex or prejudice respect for human dignity or include or promote any discrimination based on sex. The protection of dignity could be interpreted as an onus on states to stop television programmes which stigmatise lone mothers such as the BBC’s Panorama documentary Babies on Benefit (1994). As stigmatisation of lone mothers is linked to sex, the provisions concerning discrimination based on sex and incitement to hatred based on sex may be applicable.
In conclusion, the EU has done a substantial amount for lone mothers directly but its goals are too narrowly focused on poverty and unemployment; EU policy has also indirectly benefited lone mothers by promoting gender equality and combatting gender stereotypes which are a cause of stigmatization. However the actions are scattered between several EU institutions, agencies and committees, with the risk that duplication of measures and insufficient communication between these bodies may lead to an uncoordinated, less efficient policy. Therefore, the EU should develop a single overarching policy towards stigmatization of lone mothers with a clearer internal hierarchical structure and reviews of how effective the policy is every couple of years.
The policy should be led by the Institute for Gender Equality (as this body has considerable experience in the fields of gender, stereotyping and gender discrimination) which will receive occasional direction from the Commission based on its dialogue with relevant NGOs. (The Commission is best placed for this role as it has dialogue with NGOs which will make the policy more accountable and democratic.) The Institute for Gender Equality should receive data from the FRA in accordance with the cooperation agreement (as the FRA has experience in dealing with fundamental rights issues and stigmatization more generally, and conducts research on these issues which may be useful for the development and implementation of the policy.) The European Social Fund should continue to fund NGO’s projects while the EESC and Committee of the Regions should base their actions on Communications from the Commission and enter coordination agreements with the Institute for Gender Equality to make sure each body has clear objectives to fulfill and no duplication of actions will occur. The EESC and Committee of the Regions should report the results of their actions to the Institute for Gender Equality in order to avoid duplication and keep the Institute informed.
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