Women's health - is there any such thing? Isn't health the same for everyone? Not necessarily. Women and men not only have different biological functions and social roles, those differences also have an impact on their health. For instance, breast cancer is above all a women's problem, while family planning focuses primarily on women's bodies. And in violent relationships women are usually the victims. The EU's health and social policies take these gender differences into account - and the European Parliament strongly supports this approach.
Millions of women around the world suffer violence every day and this violence can take many forms: brutality within a relationship or within the family, intimidation at work, mental cruelty, sexual abuse or forced prostitution. Against this background, MEPs were keen to ensure the continuation of the Daphne programme, which seeks to combat violence against children, young people and women. Daphne II will run from 2004 to the end of 2008 with the aim of helping to fund projects throughout Europe, especially projects by non-governmental organisations, to protect women and children against violence.
The previous programme, Daphne I, which was adopted jointly by Parliament and the Council of Ministers and expired at the end of 2003, was a great success: it made such an impact that far more requests for funding were received than had been expected. It helped fund an education campaign against genital mutilation among women immigrants from Arab and African countries as well as aid projects for abused women drug addicts and a telephone hotline for prostitutes in distress. But with a budget of only EUR 20 million, Daphne I was able to support just 140 projects, although at least twice as many projects qualified. This prompted MEPs to give strong backing to the continuation and expansion of this programme.
Daphne II is now to be launched with a budget of EUR 50 million, partly because the arrival of the new Member States means the need for funding is likely to rise sharply. This figure was agreed following pressure from MEPs: the Commission had only suggested EUR 41 million. Daphne II will run for one year longer than its predecessor. And this time, Europe's legislators have chosen to target funding on major projects, which can receive up to EUR 250 000 instead of the previous maximum of EUR 125 000.
The legislation has not yet been finalised. MEPs tried to amend the Commission's draft law in a number of ways but were not successful in all their demands. For example, they wanted to include special protection for certain groups, such as young girls or street children but the Commission rejected this on the grounds that Daphne II should benefit all women and young people.
Support for responsible family planning
Parliament has also expressed firm views on sexual health and family planning. In a parliamentary resolution MEPs called on the EU Member States to support their citizens more strongly in developing a responsible approach to these issues. However, given that responsibility for contraception still falls overwhelmingly on women and they are the ones directly affected by pregnancy and abortion, it is on women that the resolution chiefly focuses.
MEPs want good quality sex education and practical help to be provided throughout the European Union. Objectives should include the prevention of unwanted pregnancies and a radical reduction in sexually transmitted diseases. They called for an end to the wide discrepancies between EU countries in access to contraception. They also urged that contraception be made available free of charge or at least cheaply - and for teenagers too. On the contentious issue of abortion, a majority of MEPs stressed that the termination of pregnancy should not be encouraged as a method of family planning. The number of abortions should be reduced by more counselling and by providing material and financial support to women in need. And those who still opt for abortion should be accurately informed about the physical and psychological risks. Basically, however, MEPs think abortion should be 'legal, safe and accessible to all' throughout the European Union.
Breast cancer: mortality rates to be cut by a quarter by 2008
Breast cancer is the most frequent cause of death among women between 35 and 55 in the European Union. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2000 alone more than 216 000 women in the European Union contracted breast cancer and more than 79 000 died from it. Yet in 90% of cases the condition is curable - if it is detected in time. In another resolution, MEPs called for the fight against breast cancer to be given priority in EU health policy. Their goal is to cut breast cancer mortality rates throughout Europe by a quarter by 2008 and they urged a range of measures, from better early detection to after-care that takes account of women's psychological needs.
More specifically, MEPs called for all women between the ages of 50 and 69 be offered a mammography, i.e. a breast scan, free of charge every two years. Standard check-ups are not yet available throughout the European Union but only in eight Member States, and even there the quality varies. If cancer is suspected, speedy action is needed: in future, says Parliament, patients should be given their diagnosis within five working days. If breast cancer is detected, then treatment must start not more than four weeks later and should be provided by expert teams in specialist breast centres.
MEPs also called on the European Union and the Member States to invest more in research into the causes of cancer and into new therapies. Parliament wants national cancer registers, which not all Member States yet have, to be organised in future throughout the EU and to help researchers in compiling data. Lastly, MEPs want more rights for patients, believing they should be given comprehensive information, have a say in their treatment and be able to seek a second medical opinion.