At a conference last month, the Women’s Democracy Network (WDN) and the European People’s Party (EPP), with assistance from IRI’s Europe division, co-hosted a series of panels for 10 members of parliament and political activists from Central and Eastern Europe.  The two-day event was entitled, “Advancing the Role of Women as Key Decision Makers,” and included roundtable discussions, panelist presentations and meetings with members of the European Parliament. Conference participants explored women’s political and economic empowerment and reviewed regional and European Union (EU) policies.  The conference specifically focused the importance of bringing women into decision-making roles on timely issues, including the current global financial crisis.

During the panel on policymaking in Europe and the influence of the EU, participants discussed how legislation in their home countries is shaped by EU policies and initiatives.  Kinga Pap Tontsch from Romania commented on the benefits of being an EU member country, while Alma Colo from Bosnia and Herzegovina was able to speak about her experience as a member of parliament in an EU candidate country.  Participants from Macedonia also shared their EU-candidate perspective on the mechanisms in place for the implementation of new laws adopted in order to join the EU. 

Miet Smet, a long-serving politician from Belgium, gave inspiring remarks on her life as a pioneer in the 1970s for women’s rights.  During the panel on increasing women’s economic and political participation, Senator Smet touched on her experience as a candidate at a time when it was considered shocking for a woman to run for elected office.  She also advised women to start out at a young age if they want to pursue a political career.

Guest speaker Stacy Carlson, author and former speechwriter to U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, shared with participants a behind-the-scenes perspective of the early years of the economic crisis.  Carlson spoke about her personal background in the banking industry, which led to her work in the U.S. government during the George W. Bush administration and author of the book “You, Me and the U.S. Economy.”  Carlson then moderated a roundtable discussion on crisis management and leadership where she stressed that all politicians need to create messages for “main street, not wall street” when speaking to their constituency, especially during times of crisis.

During the conference, participants also engaged in an open dialogue with Members of the European Parliament (MEP).  Vice President of the EPP and MEP from the Netherlands Corien Wortmann-Kool discussed her role as a leader within her political party and for women’s economic empowerment.  Lithuanian MEP Radvile Morkunaite-Mikuleniene spoke about her role as the second youngest member in the European Parliament, and her unique background in fine arts.  She said that she was successful with voters because she was considered a “new voice” and had the creativity to bring about changes.  MEP from the Netherlands Emine Bozkurt stressed that “women’s rights are human rights” and should be a factor when considering new country members for accession to the European Union.  She also noted that “the best way for a woman to be empowered is for her to have the means to be financially independent.”  All parliamentarians agreed that in order to increase the number of women leaders, better conditions must be established in order for women to work and have children, including better child care centers and assistance and paternity leave.

Special speakers during the conference included Emanuela Faris, Senior Political Adviser of the EPP Secretary-General, who informed the conference participants on the work of the EPP and how it maintained their large European membership.  Miriam Lexmann, representative of the EPP Group in the European Parliament, discussed EPP outreach efforts and arranged for the group to tour the European Parliament. This was the third European Parliament Study Tour and Workshop hosted jointly by EPP and WDN.

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