For the European Year of Youth, the European Commission organised a Family of Policy Dialogues, bringing together young people and EU Commissioners to engage in meaningful conversation on relevant policy initiatives. As part of this series, on 24 May, Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, hosted the fourth policy dialogue on “Equality Bodies that work for all us”. The dialogue, in which I was honoured to participate as presenter and panellist, aimed to bring youth perspectives on the upcoming legislative proposal for minimum binding standards for Equality Bodies, focusing on building bridges between Equality Bodies and youth to raise rights-awareness and address under-reporting.
Since starting my traineeship at Equinet, the most exciting news on the horizon has been the Legislative Proposal for Binding Standards for Equality Bodies. Using the term ‘excitement’ next to ‘legislative proposal’ may sound odd, but as I learned more about Equality Bodies and their potential, the importance of introducing minimum binding Standards for their structure and functions became more evident and – as a young racialized person – urgent.
Equality Bodies have come a long way since they were first established. In the year 2000, the Race Equality Directive introduced a legal requirement to designate specific bodies for the promotion of equality and the protection from discrimination on the ground of race and ethnic origin. This initial piece of legislation, together with the Gender Equality Directives, laid out the basic functions of Equality Bodies but regrettably failed to establish minimum requirements for their structure and scope, including the requirement for Equality Bodies’ mandate to cover all protected grounds, forms of discrimination and areas of life. This grey area has left a large margin of discretion for EU Member States to define the mandates, powers, independence, and resources of Equality Bodies. The consequence is a broad diversity amongst Equality Bodies in their scope and the kinds of actions they can take, leaving gaps in the protection of some grounds and/or fields in more than one third of EU Member States, and thus resulting in unequal protection from discrimination across the EU.
In an attempt to bridge these gaps and ensure that EU Equality Law is equally implemented across the Union, the European Commission is set to publish its legislative proposal on Binding Standards for Equality Bodies in the Autumn of 2022. I learned that Standards for Equality Bodies are important not only to guarantee the effectiveness and capacity of Equality Bodies to protect victims of discrimination and contribute to long-lasting change, but also to fill the gaps in levels of protection against discrimination both within and across Member States. Indeed, as marginalised persons know all too well, having a right enshrined in law is not enough to ensure its effective protection. A strong enforcement chain is necessary to make those rights a reality and Equality Bodies are a key link in this chain to monitor and enforce equality and non-discrimination law. The Standards legislation is expected to not only significantly consolidate Equality Bodies’ capacity to play this role, but also catalyse further change by ensuring Equality Bodies have the necessary resources, independence and powers to take on the new responsibilities increasingly attributed to them in EU Equality Directives.
To achieve this more concretely, the upcoming legislation on Standards that we are expectantly waiting for would not only establish minimum requirements for the mandate, powers, independence, and resources of Equality Bodies, but also measures to increase their visibility and the accessibility of their services. Indeed, if victims do not know their rights, nor the existence of Equality Bodies and how to access their services, how can they report incidents of discrimination?
Where do young people fit in all this? Despite steps taken at the EU level to recognize deep-rooted forms of inequality and discrimination and the multiplicity of their manifestations, incidents of discrimination remain largely underreported across EU Member States. In addition to potential age discrimination, young people are represented across all protected grounds, and therefore often face a combination of multiple and intersectional forms of discrimination. Compounded, these experiences can significantly affect young people at critical stages of their life, such as education and entry into the job market, potentially inducing long-term impacts that will accompany them well into adulthood. Furthermore, young people are the most exposed to specific forms of discrimination, particularly when it comes to online harassment and hate speech. At the same time, as a category they are less likely to be informed about their rights and the avenues available to receive legal and psychological assistance. It is clear that for Equality Bodies to reach their full potential, binding standards must be accompanied with more efforts to raise awareness amongst marginalised groups about their rights in a way that is not only informative, but also accessible to them; reflecting their needs and the kinds of barriers they may face to accessing rights. This is particularly true for young people, which represent a unique category of rights-holders. Young people’s voices are therefore important to ensure that any measures taken to combat discrimination and promote equality are age-sensitive and forward-looking, attuned to young people’s needs and communicated through the right channels at all levels of policy-making and implementation.
As part of the series on Youth Policy Dialogues, the European Commission organised a Policy Dialogue with Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, on the role of Equality Bodies. Youth activists and representatives of youth organisations from a broad spectrum of European civil society were invited to discuss the ways in which Equality Bodies can raise rights-awareness and combat under-reporting by building bridges with youth, and create structures for safe reporting environments. In preparation for the dialogue, I had the pleasure of sharing my experience from Equinet and new-found passion (ok, obsession) for Standards with the panellists. During the dialogue, moderated by European Commission Coordinator for Anti-Racism Michaela Moua, panellists reflected on concrete actions to raise awareness about Equality Bodies, ensuring the accessibility of their services, and how these could be enshrined in the forthcoming legislation. Panellists brought in the voices and experiences of Roma youth, young Jewish Europeans, women and girls of migrant background, LGBTQI+ youth, trans and intersex young people, youth from African, Caribbean and Pacific countries and diasporas, young people with disabilities, and the European Youth Forum. While significant diversity was achieved, some groups were not present, notably, Muslim youth organisations. The panel was a key example that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to youth issues, and that as a category youth should be considered as a heterogeneous conglomerate of diverse and sometimes overlapping issues. The representation of these diverse voices is key to give a deeper dimension to policy-making processes.
An important takeaway from the panel was that making a positive impact on youth equality cannot be achieved through a single activity or one-off project. It requires a strategic decision by Equality Bodies to incorporate youth voices, issues and concerns in all their activities: namely, mainstreaming youth perspectives. Mainstreaming youth perspectives means integrating youth in public discourse – enabling and creating spaces for young people to take part in public debate with policy- and decision-makers. Panellists stressed that Equality Bodies should make sure to always include youth perspectives when researching, designing or implementing their projects, recognizing youth as important interlocutors throughout the planning and implementation of their activities. All in all, this creates a positive feedback loop: on the one hand, Equality Bodies are brought closer to youth by building bridges to facilitate cooperation. On the other hand, Equality Bodies’ work is made more visible to youth, key for facilitating safe reporting environments.
Two representatives from the French JADE – Young Ambassadors of Rights – programme were present at the policy dialogue. Every year, the Defender of Rights (French Equality Body) trains and supervises Young Ambassadors aged 16-25, who carry out a 9-month civic service mission with them to raise awareness amongst children and peers on the right to equality and anti-discrimination, including existing channels for reporting and accessing justice. Young ambassadors visit a number of different settings, like schools, youth associations, child social assistance centres, juvenile services, leisure facilities, hospitals, and associations for young migrants and marginalised persons to engage youth from all walks of life in participatory debates.
This is just one of the many promising examples of Equality Bodies working together with young people to promote equality and mainstream youth perspectives, featured in Equinet’s Handbook for Equality Bodies on stepping up engagement with youth. Over the years, many Equality Bodies have incorporated civil society, including youth organisations and youth representatives, into their governance mechanisms, for instance through consultative committees and advisory boards. Other Equality Bodies conduct dialogues and regular meetings with civil society to develop specific projects or receive inputs on annual work plans. These initiatives, structures and platforms for cooperation offer valuable opportunities for youth to gain a seat at the table, not only to respond to existing projects but contribute to guiding the work of Equality Bodies. Given the barriers young people face in securing access to rights, we need to work upstream to ensure that youth are engaged throughout the policy-making cycle and enforcement chain in order to make the values of equality and anti-discrimination a reality.
The upcoming legislative proposal on Standards is expected to reflect this need by making meaningful cooperation with civil society a requirement for all Equality Bodies. As documented in Equinet’s work on the matter, Equality Bodies themselves have been taking the lead on facilitating, integrating and even institutionalising cooperation and bridge-making with civil society, including youth organisations and representatives. Enshrining these promising good practices in the Standards legislative proposal would be an important step to ensure Equality Bodies’ work truly mainstreams youth perspectives in a sustainable way, amplifying youth voices and dedicating us a real seat at the table. However, this is just beginning! If fully informed and taken on board, youth organisations and civil society can be empowered to play a key role in promoting the Standards legislation at the national level. This will be indispensable to generate support for its adoption at the European Council and Parliament – showing once again the importance of incorporating youth as meaningful stakeholders at all levels of policymaking.
The views on this blog are always the authors’ and they do not necessarily reflect Equinet’s position.