Women's rights are dwindling across Europe, anti-globalisation activists warned, blaming growing religious extremism and neo-liberalism.
The trend has been observed across the continent and even in Sweden, a country normally seen as a pioneer in gender equality issues, Maria Hagberg, a Swedish member of the European Feminist Initiative (EFI) network, told AFP.
"We have seen a backlash in recent years in Europe and also in Sweden, which is known as the most egalitarian country in the world, but that is only on the surface," Hagberg said late Thursday on the sidelines of the European Social Forum being held in the southern Swedish city of Malmoe.
The decline of women's rights is a phenomenon taking place across Europe, said Soad Bekkouche, a representative of the French group Laicite (Secularity).
"We see it clearly in everyday life," Bekkouche said.
Hagberg said that in Sweden earlier strides were now being threatened due to politics and legislation, and pointed to a rise in violence against women.
Five years ago, 20,000 acts of violence against women were reported, a number that has since grown to 30,000, she said.
The growing inequality affects immigrant women in particular, said Soleyman Ghasemiani, a social worker originally from Iran and now living in Sweden's second-biggest city Gothenburg.
Paradoxically, authorities' desire to display tolerance and respect of immigrants' religions and culture could be accentuating the phenomenon.
"The Swedish authorities and politicians have a lot of respect for religions and traditions and they think it's not possible to criticise Islam," he told AFP, adding that in so doing they were playing into the hands of religious fundamentalists who want to suppress women's rights.
He linked the decline in women's rights in Sweden in part to the centre-right government's arrival in power in 2006.
"The conservatives have more power now. There are more religious schools than five or 10 years ago (and) they get (state) subsidies. I am worried because I see a backlash on the ground," said Ghasemiani, who has lived in Sweden for 24 years.
"You have people who are teaching their daughters that to be a good daughter is to stay at home," he said.
Bekkouche said that across Europe, both "immigrant women and local women face the same problems amid the rise of religious extremism and neo-liberalism."
She cited the case of Polish women who could previously get legal abortions in their country, which is no longer the case. In the former eastern bloc country, contraception was now "virtually inexistant", she lamented.
"When we see the criminalisation (of abortion) in Ireland and Malta, the battle is not won," she said, adding that there was "a need to be vigilant all the time."
She also expressed concern over growing poverty among women, in particular single mothers.
Bekkouche stressed that legislation aimed at creating parity between the sexes did not automatically improve women's rights.
"Legislators want us to believe that women are making strides in European countries by adopting laws on parity. ... These are minor laws," she insisted.
Some 20,000 activists and 850 associations, non-governmental organisations, unions and other networks are taking part in 250 seminars and hundreds of cultural events being held in Malmoe through Sunday, based on the theme "Making another Europe possible."