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Women’s rights in Belgium

A historical overview

During the 19th century, Belgium, like many other European countries, was deeply entrenched in patriarchal norms and societal structures. Women had limited rights and were primarily confined to domestic roles. However, the rise of industrialization and urbanization brought changes to society, including the emergence of feminist movements advocating for women’s rights.

By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, these women’s organizations and suffrage movements were beginning to bring about significant change. They campaigned for women’s right to vote, access to education, and legal reforms to improve women’s status in society.

In 1919 Belgian women gained the right to vote in municipal elections, although this right was initially limited to certain educational and property ownership qualifications. In 1948 Belgian women gained the right to vote and stand for election in national elections, following the enactment of a new constitution.

Through the 1970s and 1980s the women’s movement in Belgium continued to advocate for gender equality in various spheres of society, including the workplace, education, and politics. During this period, significant legal reforms were enacted to address gender discrimination and promote women’s rights.

In the 1990s and 2000s Belgium made further strides in promoting gender equality and women’s rights through legislative reforms and policy initiatives. Efforts were made to address issues such as gender-based violence, pay equity, and representation of women in decision-making positions.

Currently, Belgium is continuing its commitment to advancing women’s rights and gender equality in accordance with international frameworks and agreements. Efforts are being made to increase women’s representation in politics, address gender-based violence, and promote work-life balance policies.

Five women who helped change Belgium

Five Belgian women in particular took specific actions to help advance women’s rights in Belgium:

  • In 1883, Isala Van Diest was the first woman in Belgium to obtain a university degree and become a doctor.
  • In 1888, Marie Popelin was the first woman in Belgium to obtain a law degree (although she wasn’t allowed to practice).
  • In 1921, Marie Janson became the first woman to hold a seat in the federal parliament.
  • In 1953, Suzan Daniel founded the first organisation for gay and lesbian rights in Belgium.
  • In 1968, Gabrielle Defrenne successfully sued the national airline Sabena for discrimination, setting a precedent for gender equality.
Marie Janson was the first woman in the Belgian Senate.
Postage stamp celebrating Marie Janson, the first woman in the Belgian Senate. ©bpost

These women deserve a post to themselves and to be added to my Remarkable Belgians list. So watch out for a dedicated post on these five women on International Woman’s Day (8 March, 2024).

Women in politics in Belgium

Belgium has made significant progress in increasing the representation of women in its political institutions since the introduction of the gender parity law. This law requires political parties to nominate at least 33 percent women. The parties that do not meet the target face sanctions.

The proportion of women in the Chamber of Representatives has risen from 12% in 1995 to 43.3% in 2023. The Flemish Parliament has the highest share of female MPs with 46.8%, followed by the Brussels Parliament with 46.1% and the Walloon Parliament with 41.3%.

Belgium has also had several female political leaders, such as Sophie Wilmès, the first woman to become prime minister of Belgium in 2019, and Petra De Sutter, the first transgender deputy prime minister of Belgium in 2020.

Petra De Sutter takes the oath, watched by Sophie Wilmès
Petra De Sutter takes the oath, watched by Sophie Wilmès (in blue)

Women in the workforce in Belgium

According to Statbel, in the third quarter of 2023, the employment rate for women aged 20-64 in Belgium was 68.5, compared to 75.9% for men in the same age group.

The gender pay gap (the difference in hourly wages between women and men), amounted to 5.0% in 2021. Interestingly, it’s negative (-0.1%) among workers under 25, but increases significantly with age to 4.5% among the 35-44-year-olds and even 8.5% among the 55-64-year-olds.

It’s disappointing that there is still a gender pay gap. However, Belgium performs better than most other European countries in terms of hourly wage equality between women and men (see graph below).

Gender pay gap in EU member states
Gender pay gap in EU member states

Belgium has risen from 12th place to 11th place in 2021 among the 33 OECD countries in the Women in Work Index, which measures the economic empowerment of women based on indicators such as female unemployment, female full-time employment, and female share of seats on boards of directors. This is an improvement from its 19th position in 2006.

Women at the top?

In 2011, Belgium was one of the first countries in the world to introduce a 33% legal gender quota on boards of directors. Among the BEL 20 (Belgium’s 20 biggest companies in terms of revenue), 40% of board members are women. However, this has not led to a more proportional representation of women in executive committees (16.7%). This is lower than the European average of 19%. Only five out of 96 women are executive directors. In terms of middle management, according to a report by the European Institute for Gender Equality, women held only 33.1% of managerial positions in Belgium in 2020.

Male-dominated board
Unfortunately still the situation in many boards today

Women’s reproductive rights in Belgium

Belgium fully legalized abortion on April 4, 1990. This significant step followed the temporary resignation of King Baudouin on grounds of conscience. Abortion is legal until 12 weeks after conception (or 14 weeks after the pregnant woman’s last menstrual period).

Belgium has consistently upheld reproductive rights. In response to the recent US Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo reaffirmed the country’s commitment to protecting reproductive rights.

Belgium’s healthcare system provides access to abortion services, which are covered by health insurance. Women have the right to choose whether to undergo the procedure, and healthcare providers are required to offer information and support for all options. Healthcare practitioners in Belgium have the right to conscientious objection, meaning they can refuse to perform abortions on moral or religious grounds. However, they are obligated to refer patients to another provider or facility where they can receive the necessary care.

Challenges still exist

Women in Belgium, as in many other countries, still face challenges. These include gender stereotypes, unconscious bias, and the unequal distribution of household and caregiving responsibilities. These factors can hinder women’s career advancement and contribute to the gender pay gap.

Work-life balance is also an important issue for women in Belgium, particularly for those with caregiving responsibilities. The availability of affordable childcare and flexible working arrangements can significantly impact women’s ability to participate fully in the workforce.

Measures for improvement

To address gender inequality in the workforce, Belgian organizations and policymakers have implemented various measures, including awareness campaigns, diversity training, mentoring programs, and initiatives to promote women’s leadership and entrepreneurship. As part of my day job, I am delighted to have been asked to take the minutes at two important meetings coming up soon. One is the Informal meeting of gender equality ministers later this month. The aim is to accelerate progress on gender equality in the EU in the years ahead. The second, in March, is a high-level event on women in public life, which aims to develop actions to halt and reverse the current trend of women leaving the public sphere, driven by various burdens, threats, and attacks. So it’s good to see that women’s rights are on the agenda within the EU.

Religious influence on women’s rights

You would expect religion, of all areas of life, to treat women fairly, equally, and with dignity. However, that’s not the case. Women across various religious traditions, including Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, often experience discrimination, subjugation, and even violence justified by religious interpretations.

These religions can in some cases portray women as inherently different from men, confining them to narrower roles and limiting their lives. This stems from the depiction of God in monotheistic religions. It’s a portrayal that reflects historical beliefs in male superiority, and which in turn perpetuates discriminatory attitudes and practices against women.

This is a huge topic and one that interests me greatly. Therefore, I am not going to say any more at the moment. But a full article on the impact of religion on women’s rights, primarily in Belgium but also elsewhere, will be appearing next week.

Taslima Nasrim on women's rights and religion

I would be interested in your comments on the above, especially if you would like to share any personal experiences, negative or positive, and also if you have any thoughts on the religious aspects of women’s rights. You can add a comment below or send me an email.

20 thoughts on “Women’s rights in Belgium”

  1. Always a topic that interests me! Lots of progress, but it’s not linear and I agree with the commenter above that we are going backwards in some areas, eg reproductive rights. A couple of things that struck me, I looked in vain for the UK in your table and then realised it wasn’t just Europe but specifically the EU! We’re that little backwater on the edge now ?. One area we are going backwards I think is trans rights, so I was interested to read about Petra De Sutter. Have you escaped the ridiculous “culture wars” we have here? A trans minister would produce a nasty rumpus unfortunately. On a slightly brighter note, in Scotland our First Minister has just had a reshuffle and 7 of 10 cabinet members are women.

    1. According to these OECD figures Anabel, the UK gender pay gap is 14.5%. Great to see Scotland has good gender balance in its cabinet. No, Belgium is currently pretty free of these culture wars you mention, for the moment anyway.

  2. A well written, informative, and interesting topic, Denzil. Belgium is way ahead in gender equality within political institutions than here in the USA. We have yet to elect a female as president.
    It must’ve been quite frustrating for Marie Popelin to hold a law degree and not be allowed to practice. Though, I suspect, she may have provided her services on a private basis.
    As you observe, religious institutions remain the stalwart of patriarchy. The loss of abortion rights here in the USA is a tremendous blow to women of childbearing age. Sigh.

    1. Thanks Rosaliene, you reminded me that I intended to cover reproductive rights, which I have now included. Turning over Wade vs Roe was a huge surprise that’s going to negatively impact thousands of women.

  3. In early1997, I recall trying to open a bank account in my own name. When asked if I was married, I of course answered honestly and said yes. I was told to my face I need my husband’s consent. So, when I went to the next bank, I lied and could open an account. My Dutch husband but permanent resident of Belgium was surprised at that. I had nothing to hide from him, I just did not want such a large amount of my cash in the penthouse. I am assuming that discrimination is past tense now but am curious as to when it did cahnge. After my husband died, I left Belgium end of 1997 to move to Spain.

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