The Women in Law Conference | Vienna | September 12-14, 2024

Women's Rights - Age and Disability

The panel dissected women's rights issues, specifically ageism and its intersection with gender. The conversation expanded to broader themes including class's effect on discrimination, violence against women, and societal expectations of women's roles. The panelists emphasized the persistence of patriarchal structures, mandatory legal reforms, and revision of societal norms to achieve a more equitable future for women.

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Gendered Ageism, Class, and Violence

Navigating the Complex Landscape of Gendered Ageism, Class, and Violence – Keynote Speech and Panel Discussion Summary

The panel discussion on September 15 convened experts to dissect critical facets of women’s rights, with a particular focus on the insidious issue of gendered ageism and gender-based violence. In her illuminating keynote speech, Margaret Thornton delved into the pervasive problem of age discrimination, shedding light on its intersection with gender. The ensuing panel discussion, featuring Zlata Đurđević, Ana Horvat Vucović, and moderator Marie-Thérèse Claes, expanded the discourse to encompass broader themes, including the impact of class and the unsettling realities of violence against women.

“What is the right age for a woman?”

Margaret Thornton’s keynote address initiated the discussion of the subject by addressing the cultural and societal implications of ageism. In a world that values youth, beauty, and perpetual vitality, she questioned the arbitrary standards imposed on women at different life stages. Thornton provocatively challenged the prevailing norms that often dictate what is deemed an acceptable age for women, urging society to reassess these preconceived notions.

“Voices of women tend to be discounted with age whereas men tend to be regarded as founts of wisdom.”

The keynote speaker emphasized the unfortunate tendency to discount older women’s voices while elevating men’s perceived wisdom as they age. Gendered ageism, as Thornton asserted, perpetuates biases that disadvantage women, resulting in their experiences and insights being overlooked based on societal perceptions linked to chronological age rather than capability and expertise.

“Women are young or old; we get no prime time.”

Thornton’s address highlighted the multifaceted challenges women face, emphasizing the societal pressure to conform to traditional roles. She underscored the reality women experience regarding receiving limited „prime time“ across different life stages. The cultural expectation for women to remain confined within traditional roles was presented as a significant barrier to their broader contributions.  

“Should gendered ageism be recognized as a new form of discrimination?”

A pivotal question emerged from Thornton’s keynote speech, challenging the status quo and urging society to recognize gendered ageism as a distinct form of discrimination. This query prompted a reevaluation of existing legal frameworks, advocating for the acknowledgment and protection against age-based biases, thus fostering a more inclusive and equitable society.

“Class is a master status for any other form of discrimination.”

The ensuing panel discussion, featuring Zlata Đurđević, a tenured professor of criminal procedure, human rights, international and European criminal law at the University of Zagreb, Ana Horvat Vucović, an associate professor at the University of Zagreb and the moderator Marie-Thérèse Claes, the head of the institute for Gender and Diversity in Organizations, deepened the exploration by scrutinizing the influence of class on discrimination. Ana Horvat Vucović underscored class as a foundational precursor to power imbalances, acknowledging that while wealthier women might encounter less discrimination, there remains an intersectionality within the realm of discrimination for affluent women.

Zlata Đurđević, a criminal law lawyer, shifted the discussion towards sexual violence, emphasizing that irrespective of economic class, statistics on sexual and physical violence against women remain consistent. Marriage, she noted, doesn’t show a correlation with violence levels based on economic class.

Claes highlighted the intersectionality of age, ability, and gender in the suffering women endure from violence. Đurđević compared Austria and Croatia’s legal systems, revealing inefficiencies in Croatia’s courts and lengthy proceedings, contrasting with Austria’s top-tier jurisdiction. Despite these legal differences, both countries share a similar stage concerning femicide and violence against women.

While acknowledging affirmative actions by Austrian and Croatian legislation, Đurđević noted persistently high violence rates. In Croatia, lower sentences for perpetrators hinder prevention efforts. Many women seeking police help often face disbelief, leading to tragic outcomes. Đurđević revealed a societal tolerance for domestic violence, even quoting the Croatian family minister’s disturbing statement.

She shared a striking statistic: 56% of murders of women occur in the private sphere, while only 19% of murders of men occur in similar contexts, questioning societal and familial norms. Claes pondered if the lack of respect for women in families mirrored broader societal issues.

Addressing societal roles, the discussion touched on DACH countries, where mothers are expected to stay home, contrasting with more progressive models in Spain and France. This raised the broader question: What is the role of women in society?

“Where are women expected to be, and where are they not expected to be?”

Marie-Thérèse Claes expanded the dialogue by questioning societal expectations placed on women, particularly concerning their roles in both family and broader society. This segment explored the limiting effects of societal attitudes, such as the notorious „Rabenmutter“ (lousy mother) label, shedding light on women’s challenges when deviating from traditional expectations.

“If you don’t legalize it, you cannot control it.”

Transitioning to the legal arena, Marie-Thérèse Claes emphasized the significance of legalizing certain practices, notably prostitution, to ensure better control and protection for women. The discussion highlighted legislation’s pivotal role in safeguarding women’s rights, underscoring the necessity of proactive legal measures to create a protective framework.

Another audience member then redirected the conversation to sexualized violence, offering a comment on the Austrian situation regarding femicides. She asserted that Austria has the highest statistics in terms of femicides, a point she came across while researching her master’s thesis. The statement she shared was:

„The patriarchal structures are so deeply ingrained in our legal system that we don’t recognize them anymore.“

Statistically, the majority of femicides occur within the first two months after separation. When women turn to the police during this period out of fear of becoming murder victims, their concerns are often not taken seriously, leaving them unprotected. According to the audience member, the risk of femicide decreased significantly when more men were involved in the household and when the relationship was based on partnership.

„It is the patriarchal background that kills women.“

Consequently, the closure of institutions like women’s shelters is particularly dangerous for women, as these facilities often serve as the sole refuge for economically disadvantaged women, especially those with children, seeking to escape the threat posed by their (ex-)partner.

Another audience member interjected that the issue regularly starts at police stations, where women seeking help are often still not believed to be in danger of violence. Women from migrant communities, especially Muslims, are particularly affected by this skepticism. While aid workers note the escalation of violence resulting in femicide, male offenders often receive little or no punishment for these preceding offenses.

The panel delved into the profound influence of patriarchal structures within legal systems, particularly in Austria and Croatia. The discussion brought to light the pervasive impact of patriarchy on femicides and violence against women, emphasizing the urgent need for legal and societal reforms to address these deeply entrenched systemic issues.

Claes then asked the other two panelists whether they believed Croatia fits the model of a patriarchal society.

Ana Horvat Vucović responded to the question by expressing her firm belief that patriarchal structures indeed prevail in Croatia. She attributed this prevalence to the ongoing dominance of macho-masculinity, a trend that re-surged during the war in the 90s.

“Women were pushed back to their traditional roles and had to start all over again.”

Ana Horvat Vucović provided insights into the impact of war on reinforcing traditional gender roles, underscoring the need for societal reconstruction to break free from these historical constraints. The discussion extended to violence against women during disasters, revealing the heightened vulnerability of women in such situations.

In conclusion, the Women in Law Conference keynote speech and panel discussion comprehensively explored gendered ageism, class, and violence against women. The experts challenged societal norms, urged recognition of ageism as a distinct form of discrimination, and emphasized the necessity of legal and societal changes to create a more equitable future for women. As we navigate these intricate issues, we must foster an inclusive society that values women at all stages of life, irrespective of age or societal expectations.

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