Cécile Kashetu Kyenge MEP, a black female doctor from Italy, gives an inspiring and insightful take on equality and diversity, highlighting the progress made and the challenges that remain.

To have been a medical doctor for many years has been an extraordinary journey of human and professional growth. As a surgeon, you have to be calm and collected, but at the same time you have to decide and act quickly, facing emergencies with great lucidity of mind and acting promptly for the sake of your patient.

Being not just a woman, but also a black immigrant, taught me much over the years in the art of facing prejudice, discrimination and attacks. But it was only when I came into politics that I realised fully that equality and diversity are still controversial issues: at which point I put to good use all those skills that I learned as a professional doctor! My nomination in Italy to Minister for Integration in 2013 was praised by many, but it also created hysterical reactions of rejection. For some it seemed a subversion of the natural order, something which confused them and therefore scared them.

The insults and the threats did not discourage me, and I never felt personally offended. It made me sad, though, to realise how much confusion, bitterness and anger lives in the hearts of many, and in particular to have to watched the cynical speculation of people’s fear and naivety. I always felt injury was done to the entire community, not to me personally.

Don Milani was a priest who, 50 years ago, set up a revolutionary evening school for the children of his parishioners, poor mountain peasants; but above all he was a man of extraordinary civil conscience, and he denounced the hypocrisy of apparently democratic institutions. He used to say: ‘There is nothing as unjust as giving the same to those who are not the same’.

During the course of history, human societies have found innumerable reasons and ways of distinguishing between high and low, in and out. The oldest, most common and stubborn form of discrimination has always been the one against women, but also ethnic origin, nationality, religion, sexual orientation, physical and mental conditions, social class and political beliefs have been used as reasons to divide humanity and apportion, in different measures, rights, resources and dignity.

And when this inequality becomes systemic, it is not enough to give in the same measure; those who are disadvantaged are not able to compete fully, carrying the weight of injustice which makes them slower.

Public institutions, in order to be truly just, must give unequally to the ones who are unequal. This is what is today called affirmative action. We must give more attention, more resources, more care and more credit to those who have been left behind, and it is for this reason that European Union policies are not only geared towards eliminating discrimination, but also towards empowering people who are marginalised.

Culture and education are two fundamental components of the empowerment process. A woman who has a clear understanding of her abilities and entitlements, who is confident in taking decisions and assuming responsibility, who is not conditioned by stereotypes and fights every day to realise her potential, certainly has a better chance of not becoming a victim of violence, and of transmitting a sense of self worth to her family, friends and colleagues.

I believe that women, and not only European women, are now a long way into their irreversible journey towards autonomy; and I also believe that it is now men who are feeling disoriented and need help. Many psychologists and sociologists are talking of ‘male crisis’ and even of a ‘disappearance of the paternal figure’, and it is not by chance that the Istanbul Protocol introduces, in its chapter on gender violence, male education and treatment for the abusers.

In Italy the association ‘Maschile Plurale’ fights violence against women through collaborative work with men. They have recently launched an innovative campaign which shows men living happily in non traditional roles and situations, like men staying at home to take care of the family, men proud of the success of their partner, men doing housework or crying. This is very important because women not only suffer from prejudice and stereotyping but can also feel as if they have to hold themselves in check, afraid to damage the ego of their partners by being too successful.

I am always happy, and moved, when I receive letters from people, particularly women, who say they have been encouraged and inspired by my achievements. We have a long way to go yet, but the first steps are always the hardest, and walking in company makes the travel lighter.