IN EARLY 2020, Awa had just turned 15 years old when she heard that her marriage was being arranged. Escaping it seemed difficult, but Awa found the courage to defy her father’s decision. Her small village in Mali had a committee for the prevention of early marriage, and she took her case to them. This body of respected people presented Awa’s father with all the arguments against early marriage, and managed to convince him. It is to help the cause of young girls like Awa that the European Union (EU) supports this committee and many other projects in this area around the world.
Our goal in the EU is for everyone to have the same power to shape society and their own lives. We put it in black and white in our third Gender Action Plan, adopted on Nov. 24, calling for a gender-equal world. Now, due to the significant setback that COVID-19 has brought on the global work on equality and as we watch civil society organizations, including women’s and LGBTIQ organizations, facing a shrinking civic and democratic space, stepping up in building a gender-equal world is more important than ever.
Awa’s story is similar to those of many girls around the world who manage to gain control over their lives and stand up to gender-based inequalities and discrimination. They have a voice, they drive change, and they have the European Union by their side to support them. This is because women’s rights are human rights and because gender equality is a non-negotiable value of the EU, a value which should be reflected in the EU’s external action and in the design of all EU development programs.
It is with EU support that Tufahah Amin, Aziza Al-Hassi, and Amine Kashrouda developed an application for online education in Benghazi. And that the Gaziantep Women Platform was launched last year to help more women participate in Syria’s political process. It is in the framework of the EU supported Digital2Equal initiative for online platforms that 15,000 women in India will get training in hospitality skills and can improve their earnings.
The challenges to gender equality are as varied as the contexts in which they emerge and call for context-specific responses, whether through multilateral fora, dialogues with partner countries, to EU policy proposals or financing of concrete projects. Through our programs on education, we aim to help more girls attend school, learn, and think of themselves as future drivers of change. We believe that education is also one of the most powerful ways of putting an end to isolation and abuse, for there is no exit option without economic self-sufficiency. We are embracing the notion of human security and integrating gender equality into our training programs for EU crisis management operations, for example in the EUCAP Sahel Mali program for internal security forces (EU Capacity Building Mission).
During the coronavirus pandemic, the level of gender-based violence increased significantly and the EU partnered with the United Nations to offer shelters and helplines, and to give lifeline support to women’s grassroots organizations. The gender- and age-sensitive measures and mitigating the risks of gender-based violence are part of the DNA of our Team Europe global response to COVID-19. Yet, beyond immediate action, we must remain aware of the challenges facing women in a shrinking labor market and shifting global economy. But challenges also bring opportunities. We celebrate the fact that women and girls are increasingly taking part in shaping global transformations, with new generations active in grassroots movements for a green and just transition, equal rights for all, democracy, and for peaceful and inclusive societies. Positive change is possible and the post-COVID-19 recovery must be an opportunity to address structural inequalities and build more inclusive societies. Underscoring women’s roles in the green and digital transitions ahead is key.
Change is still needed. This year it has been 25 years since the Beijing Declaration on women’s rights and 20 years since UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women and peace and security were adopted. While progress has been achieved since, not a single country in the world is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030. Not even Europe, as revealed by the European Institute for Gender Equality’s recent update of the gender equality index. Too many women still do not have access to resources, essential social services, and equal power. The call for more action is therefore immediate.
The EU’s Gender Action Plan is not a paper exercise. It is a call for action, with concrete measures. We want to empower more women and girls, in all their diversity, to be economic, political, or environmental actors and leaders. We want to continue integrating Women, Peace and Security in the broader gender equality and women’s empowerment agenda. We want to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights and make gender-responsive leadership the norm in the EU institutions, leading by example.
We believe that gender equality deserves to be put at the heart of European policies. Not only because a gender-equal, fair, and inclusive world means a more prosperous and safer world for all of us, but because we see gender equality is an objective in its own right and a mission for Europe, at home and abroad.
Josep Borrell is High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy/Vice-President of the European Commission. Jutta Urpilainen is Commissioner for International Partnerships of the European Commission.