By Oana Bîzgan
In an act that defied pundits' expectations, Romanians rejected a highly divisive initiative aimed at modifying the Constitution and defining "family" as a marriage between a woman and a man. The referendum, which had the backing of the main political forces and a coalition of the major Christian denominations, failed to meet the 30% turnout threshold. The polarisation brought about by the issue will not easily disappear. Political and religious leaders should reflect on the message the majority of Romanians delivered this past weekend. But the best way to move forward and leave behind the accumulated tension is to re-centre the public's attention to topics that are highly relevant for Romania's future. One of them: how to close the gender gap and ensure that our girls and women get the place they deserve in our society.
Despite the heated debate, few were able to convincingly identify the benefits of the referendum - a key reason for its failure. This stands in sharp contrast with the real moral and economic costs generated by widespread gender discrimination in Romania. We have a moral duty to put an end to a situation that has transformed the country into a two-track society, in which some are encouraged to follow their dreams, while others have to overcome unimaginable barriers. We also have to pay attention to the numbers and realise the magnitude of the negative consequences. #MeToo has shaken up things globally, now it's important to get concrete country by country. We need to focus on specifics and actions that help drive a genuine empowerment drive and wave in Romania, and more widely in Eastern Europe.
As the statistics show, each year Romania loses 1.6% of its GDP because of the negative impact gender discrimination has on labour market participation. The fact that the employment rate is significantly higher for men compared to women means, beyond purely economic terms, that the state cannot benefit from the innovation, creativity and ultimately from the revenues associated with more jobs available for women. And this is only a small part of the story. In Romania, women are under-represented as members of the boards of public companies, accounting for only 10% of total board seats, compared to an EU average of 24%. The same lack of fairness is visible in terms of access to venture capital, which speaks to the necessity of finding the appropriate mechanisms to fund start-ups founded by women. Even more dramatically, domestic violence means trauma for tens of thousands of women each year and EUR 10 billion less for public services such as education or healthcare.
The problem has a important political dimension: less than 20% of Romanian MPs are women. While I am proud to be one of them, I want more women in Parliament, and I have a Women's Caucus among my priorities. The deficit of representation reflects an essential project that will take hard work and devotion to be implemented: women empowerment and preparing our girls for public and political leadership. #Girl2Leader, a worldwide campaign launched by the Women Political Leaders Global Forum and whose Romanian chapter I have the honour to host this week, is seeking exactly to serve this goal, by connecting them with female politicians in their home countries to get more girls involved in politics.
At a time of societal tension and political polarisation, Romania has the opportunity to focus its energy on those issues that would generate both fairness and growth in the medium and long-term. Making sure that our girls will not be left behind is the best way to forget a complicated moment in our democractic development. 2018 is the year of the woman globally, and the year of the Centenary in Romania: let's make it a year to remember - for the success of empowerment, not failed referendums.
Oana Bîzgan as a member of Parliament of Romania, representing Bucharest, and serves as a member of the Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, and the Committee for Economic Policy, Reform and Privatization.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.