The House of Representatives yesterday started to debate the gender equality bill.

"This bill is neither the beginning nor the end, but it is a significant step forward for the achievement of sexual equality," Social Policy Minister Lawrence Gonzi said at the opening of the debate.

He said the bill was based on the principle that all persons were equal, all should have the right to the same opportunities, and there should be no discrimination, direct or indirect. In many cases this involved not only legislative change, but also a change of mentalities.

This bill was a continuation of various measures taken by different governments, part of a mosaic of legislation against discrimination. Legislation had already been approved to guard against discrimination in the labour sector and against people with disabilities. That had been accompanied by better training and education opportunities for men and women. Indeed, the number of women at University now exceeded the number of men. Yet a breakthrough still had to be made by women in the sectors of engineering, information technology, architecture and science subjects. The number of women at MCAST was still too low.

There had also been an increase in the female participation rate in the labour sector, but more remained to be done.

Dr Gonzi observed that although the Constitution banned sexual discrimination, that had been limited to the relationship between the state and the people. The legislation that the government was moving, however, aimed at banning discrimination also between private individuals, employers and workers, among others.

Dr Gonzi said there was no doubt on the need for this bill, and further impetus had been given by the acquis communautaire which EU candidate countries had to adopt before accession.

Touching on some of the details in the bill, Dr Gonzi said there could not be discrimination based on sex or because of family responsibilities. No one could be discriminated against because he was a parent. One could not discriminate against a woman because she could one day be pregnant.

The bill gave a detailed definition of sexual harassment and the procedures to be followed by employers and those reporting harassment or discrimination.

The bill prohibited banks and financial institution from discrimination in the grant of any facility in respect of the establishment, equipment or in the launching or extension of any business or self-employment.

The bill, Dr Gonzi said, set educational and vocational guidelines and also included provisions against discriminatory advertisement.

The bill provided for the setting up of a National Commission for the Promotion of Equality for Men and Women, one of whose aims would be to investigate complaints of discrimination. People found to have been discriminated upon would be able to seek compensation for damages before the courts.

Dr Gonzi stressed that gender equality could not come solely from legislation. He said that one of the most important agencies that was contributing towards gender equality was the Employment and Training Corporation which was working on a gender equality action plan.

Labour MP Helena Dalli said the title of the bill was a misnomer.

"This is not a bill on equality, but a bill against discrimination."

The opposition would vote for the bill because it wanted action in this sector, but it still viewed this bill as "quarter baked".

Mrs Dalli said it was a shame that so much work prepared by the Labour government on gender equality had been shelved. Experts appointed at the time of the Labour government had meticulously studied legislation in the EU, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. This bill, however, was just an exercise of "cut and paste" from EU directives and a Labour government would therefore substantially improve it.

Just as shameful was that the government had not brought to parliament legislation on domestic violence and child minding.

This bill was being moved in the eleventh hour of the EU accession process after the EU had criticised the government for having achieved no significant progress in this sector.

Organisations such as the Women's Study Group had been right to complain that this bill only tackled discrimination and did not serve to promote equality.

The present government did not see the need for a ministry or a secretariat for women when even Sweden, where half the cabinet was formed of women, still felt the need for a ministry for equality or women's rights.

The bill, Mrs Dalli observed, said nothing about positive discrimination and a balance in decision-making posts between men and women. Nothing was said on how women's access to decision-making posts could be improved.

Labour wanted to see the appointment of an equality commissioner with wider executive powers, saving complainants the need to go before the courts and the industrial tribunal.

Much was said about the need for family-friendly conditions and quality policies at places of work, but that could not be seen in the bill.

Mrs Dalli said a society which wanted women to raise families and to work should also ensure that they had the working conditions which enabled them to achieve both aims. Gender equality had to be accompanied by gender awareness even in areas such as the police force, were policewomen had now been told they would no longer have reduced hours.

Mrs Dalli said the fact that a complainant would have to pay costs if her case was not upheld could result in many people not raising their complaints before the commission in the first place.

Mrs Dalli said a gender equality act should bring about real gender equality and a future Labour government would ensure that the coverage of this law was comprehensive.

The debate continues this evening.

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