A public hearing of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, on 31 January 2011, was an opportunity to hear the views of experts on the challenges facing single mother households and ideas for practical solutions and policies to help single mothers. The aim of the meeting was to provide input for a European Parliament report on the situation of single mothers, which will be drafted by the Italian MEP Barbara Matera.
In 2009, single parents represented roughly 13% of households with children and over a third of them lived below the risk of poverty threshold. According to estimates, almost 90% of lone parents are women and most are aged between 30 and 39.
“The statistics are alarming. In the last few months, the number of single mothers in poverty has been growing exponentially,” said Matera. “The European Parliament has to act immediately.”
One of the shadow rapporteurs, MEP Zita Gurmai, said that “single parents need our attention because they face the same responsibilities as couples but do so alone. During the economic crisis, their situation is even worse”.
Various speakers pointed to the need for more data/studies to compare the situation of single mothers across Europe. They also singled out pathways to single parenthood (e.g. the person is a divorcee or was never married and the partner has left) as requiring analysis.
During the hearing, the organisation MMM Europe (Mouvement Mondial des Mères-Europe) gave a presentation of a one-off online survey of over 11,000 mothers who volunteered to answer. When offered the chance to send a message to Europe’s policy makers, many mothers expressed concern about other aspects of work/family balance including maternity and parental leave, flexible working hours and conditions of work, the availability of part-time work and the correlation of work schedules with school calendars and schedules so that children and adolescents are not left to their own devices or on the street while parent(s) work. Also in the survey, 94% of mothers said that it was “very important” or “important” to have a choice of whether to care for the child herself or to have public childcare of high quality.
MEP Britta Thomsen stressed the importance of sex education for young people, which she sees as being given low priority at the moment. She pointed out that there were lots of teenage pregnancies in the UK, Malta and Ireland and that there were more and more in Denmark too. “We need research on teenage pregnancy as mothers may well be unable to look after children when they are only sixteen or so,” she said.
Other ideas that emerged during the debate included that the state should act as a guarantor if a man [leaving his spouse] is unable to provide money to look after the child(ren), that VAT rates should be lower for products and services for young children (as is the case in the UK) and that should be involved in local policy decisions.