An equal society is a better society for everyone. FRA’s Ursula Till-Tentschert warns against sidelining women — once empowered, there is nothing they cannot do. Ursula remembers the injustice of having to sew at school while her brothers carved models from wood. It is only a short step from classroom discrimination to outright prejudice. She celebrates the EU laws that protect us. But she says they will only truly work if we also smash the invisible social barriers to empowerment.
Richard Miron: This is the Fundamentally Right podcast. In this programme, we shine a light on human rights in the European Union and the personal stories of those working to ensure their protection. I'm Richard Miron. The FRA is an agency of the EU that investigates, researches and provides advice on people's rights and protections. Its work is based upon the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which came into force 10 years ago in December 2009. In this programme, we're hearing the personal stories of a number of people who work for the FRA.
Working in human rights is often difficult, bringing people face to face with those who've been abused, discriminated against and put in danger because of who they happen to be. In this episode, we have the story of Ursula Till-Tentschert, who's a member of FRA's Technical Assistance and Capacity Building Unit. It helps collect evidence on the state of human rights across the EU, and Ursula also works on the FRA's ongoing survey of Roma and Traveller people across Europe. Ursula talked about how her experience as a young girl influenced the direction of her career.
Ursula Till-Tentschert: While I grew up in Vienna as a girl in the 70s, 80s in Austria. I think I've felt the inequality as a, as a girl very early. So I grew up with my brothers and my younger sister, and I didn't feel this difference at home so much. But then when I played a lot with my brothers and their friends, we also played soccer, for example. When I came to secondary school, they told us we're not allowed to play soccer because we are girls. It felt so unjust and I couldn't understand it. Growing up as a woman, as a young woman and experiencing a lot of inequalities, it shapes your mind, your understanding and your feeling for justice.
For example, in school, you know, we had craft as a subject, handcrafting and the boys and girls were separated in the classes and the girls did, you know, sewing and knitting. And the boys, my brothers they brought home these wonderful models of houses they built. And carving with a knife and, and I was not allowed to do that. We had to stay with the knitting and the stitching and the sewing and I hated it. These were just little examples, but this was what society was about, not giving the same chances to girls, the same opportunities, I would say.
And even if it was, maybe you have the formal right at that time of course to, to go to university and do what you want, there were these implicit barriers. And if you had no role models then, then women being housewives or maybe teachers or waitresses then, then it's very difficult to, to take up a subject which is maybe not typically female. I guess I would have liked to, to study engineering, for example, but I didn't have the courage to do it. And I didn't have any, any mentor or somebody who told me that I could do it. And at the end, I studied sociology because I always liked mathematics and statistics, so this was the way I could really do it, but still not face technical study. Being told that you cannot do something because of what you are, it really makes you feel disempowered.
But of course, it also helped me to get empowered and, and to stand up for my own rights and also for the rights of others. With gender equality, this is also my motivation why I'm working at the Fundamental Rights Agency, because there are other groups who face much more discrimination, what I have ever experienced.
When I visited for the first time a Roma settlement just 50 kilometres east of Vienna, you know, you just drive with your car 50 kilometres east and you can see such discrimination and living conditions, you wouldn't believe, you know, it's that proximity. I remember walking down the street with my colleague who translated and suddenly the concrete road went into a mud road. Then at the end of the road, very separated from the village, there was a little, little settlement with really small houses in very bad shape.
And people came out and told us. And what I noticed was there was a big wall behind this little settlement, maybe, you know, 10 houses. And it was the wastewater facility of the municipality and they had built it across the road and the wall they have put there explaining they would want to protect them from the smell. Then they told us that they were actually not connected to the wastewater facility, to the sewage, their houses. They said there were some property unclarities. So they put a new wastewater facility there, the municipality, they put a wall, put it across the road, said it wouldn't be connected to the village - that goes all the way around. And, and it wasn't even linked. So this is discrimination we are facing in Europe today and Roma in particular.
It makes me feel angry. And I felt the same feeling of, you know disempowerment and injustice, but also giving me the confidence that what we are doing here is the right thing. And I think it is important to show it what's happening and to raise the voice. And I think it's very important to develop solutions and put the people, in this case the Roma, at the focus of the work and develop the solutions together with them.
Richard Miron: Can I ask you now about your work and what you do, and the Charter and equality. I mean, the Charter sets out equality, it seems to me, forgive me for saying this – it's one of the most basic things. It's almost like it's so obvious, does it have to be stated?
Ursula Till-Tentschert: True, it sounds like equality is a principle in our society and we all believe in it and why do we have to set it out? But if you look, and I try to give some examples, there are a lot of inequalities and also a lot of inequalities which are actually outside of the Charter, and just think about income inequality. The Charter is very important because it sets out the right of equality before the law. It prohibits discrimination on all grounds. It protects the rights of the child, the right of persons with disabilities. It protects the right to live your cultural, linguistic and religious diversity. So if you think about some recent developments like prohibiting wearing a headscarf or burqa, you know, so I think there is need for such principles to set out, and not all has been translated into EU or national law yet. So there's still a lot to do.
Richard Miron: What do you feel needs to be further set out into EU law and principles?
Ursula Till-Tentschert: Prohibiting discrimination on all grounds. It will be important that the EU adopts the Equal Treatment Directive, which enlarges the grounds to be protected to religion, disability and sexual orientation, and also the multidimensionality of discrimination, intersectionality. So, for instance, if you're a woman and a member of an ethnic group, if you're a Roma woman, so it also protects this ground in particular. I think it's also important to enforce the laws we have in place. So, to make sure that we have the structures where these laws can be powerful and effective. For example, providing sufficient fund to the human rights institutions, to the equality bodies in the countries is very important. And also to raise awareness, raise awareness of your own rights, because the reporting rate on hate crime, hate speech, discrimination are very low. So on the one side, there is a lack of awareness, but also the feeling of disempowerment. So if I reported, it will have no effect. We need to change that.
Richard Miron: How much do you feel that equality is something that is under threat in the Europe of 2019-2020?
Ursula Till-Tentschert: It is under threat, definitely. If we look into the hate speech, the speech also of politicians speaking against minority groups, humiliating Roma, for example. I think equality is very much under threat. I think it will need efforts to… common efforts to make a turn in this regard. On the other side, we also make progress in many regards. If you think about gender equality, we now have the first female Commission President and a balanced Commission at the European Union. I think these are changes which show progress. So it's not just threats, it's also progress.
Richard Miron: At the same time, we've got, for example, the gender pay gap. We're seeing that as an emerging issue, aren't we? So, I mean, it follows on exactly the point that you're making, that there are codified things which should be followed and yet...
Ursula Till-Tentschert: We have made a lot of advances in terms of gender equality. Just thinking back when I was a child, rape in marriage was not prohibited in Austria and in Germany it was only… it got explicitly prohibited in the 90s. So, there were very recent advancements, and we should not forget those. But then coming back to the gender pay gap, there is almost no move. And this is something definitely unacceptable, that we make so little progress. And I hope that the new Commission will tackle this inequalities.
I also think that in terms of gender equality, discrimination got more or inequalities got more subtle. So, young women do have much more opportunities, so going back to my childhood, it's no question that girls nowadays can choose between crafting and knitting, and they can choose if they want to play soccer. Nevertheless, the discrimination became more structural. So the question is, do girls really choose what they could choose and what are the barriers which are more invisible, which keep them away from taking the equal opportunities?
Richard Miron: So the Charter in a way, is like the beacon on the hill, but you have to more light the path to the way to the hill. Would that be a right analogy?
Ursula Till-Tentschert: Yeah, it's a good analogy. I think it's setting the frame. It lays out the principles and it is about us to translate it, and most important to enforce it – so, to implement it and to make sure that we have the structures in place so the laws can also be effective and we do have the reporting and that people can live their rights.
Richard Miron: A call for action by Ursula Till-Tentschert. Ursula is just one of a number of people at the FRA and you can hear the true stories of others in this series, including how the history of one man's family from all across Europe shaped his view of human rights. This podcast has been presented by me, Richard Miron, and produced by Anouk Millet. This is an Earshot Strategies production.