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Israel lags 30 years behind the US as far as equality in the workplace is concerned, according to attorney Tziona Koenig Yair.
Speaking ahead of International Women's Day, which will be marked worldwide on Wednesday, Koenig Yair expressed satisfaction that the outgoing Knesset had finally passed legislation to create an Equal Opportunities Employment Commission that would fight for gender equality in the workplace and against discrimination. According to the new law, the commission must be set up by the end of 2006.
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Koenig Yair, who has served as a legal adviser to the Israel Women's Network for the past five years, drafted the bill together with Israel Prize Laureate Ruth Ben Israel of Tel Aviv University, and with the support of the British Council in Israel. Koenig Yair said the bill was based on similar statutes in place in Northern Ireland and the US, and that it had received the support of numerous MKs.
"The fact that this law was passed was a significant step on the road to justice for women," said Koenig Yair. "There has not been significant change on equality issues in Israel for many years."
According to the Israel Women's Network, between 1,000 and 1,500 women said they experienced discrimination in the workplace during the past year. The scenarios cited ranged from not being promoted because they were women to being fired because they were pregnant or undergoing In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) treatment.
There are already laws in place to protect pregnant women from being fired or having their work hours cut, but women have to fight for their rights on a case-by-case basis. Now, with a state commission, enforcing these rights will be easier, said Koenig Yair.
Caron Sethill, assistant director at the British Council in Israel, said, "The mere existence of an institution such as this sends a strong message to employers."
The new Equal Opportunities Employment Commission will be a state run body with three branches - Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the South, and Haifa and the North. People will be able to approach the commission with complaints, which will take up the issue with the employer directly or take it to court. Koenig Yair said many more cases would be brought to justice than ever before.
As for implementing the new law, Koenig Yair said, "We have to start somewhere. I am very optimistic. All social change is a process that takes a long time, but hopefully in a few years we will see a more democratic and just society."
Sethill said the success of the commission depended mainly on government support, media interest and raising public awareness of inequalities in society. "The power given to these kinds of organizations is critical. This commission should become the champion of equality in Israel," Sethill said.
Another group that promotes gender equality, the Women's Budget Forum, found that the status of women was not given any consideration by treasury committees when drafting each ministry's budget.
Yael Hasson, the forum's coordinator, said the organization recently researched whether the status of women was taken into account when budgets were created in the Finance Ministry. Based on the findings, said Hasson, "women do not come into the equation."
"There are no statistics on the status of women and no information given to those creating the budgets," said Hasson.
"We would like to raise awareness in the Education Ministry, for example, that due to school finishing at 1 p.m., many women who are mothers are prevented from going out and joining the work force," she said.
Dedicating more of the ministry's budget to child-care would allow more women the opportunity to work, said Hasson.
International Women's Day represents at least nine decades of women struggling for equality, justice, peace and development around the world. Its history is rooted in the centuries-old struggle of women to participate in society on an equal footing with men and is meant to inspire women to achieve their full potential. The occasion is marked by women's groups around the globe and commemorated at the United Nations.
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