Photo: EDD Brussels

A better world for women is a better world for all

The twelfth edition of the European Development Days aimed to bring together the European Union's commitment to gender equality and women's empowerment with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

“Women and girls at the forefront of sustainable development: protect, empower, invest” was the topic of this year’s European Development Days (EDD) held by the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, in early June 2018. At the two-day event, more than 8,000 participants from over 140 countries discussed ways to improve the situation of women world-wide and enable them to achieve equal participation and ownership. The roughly 120 sessions addressed three overarching blocks of topics: ensuring the physical and psychological integrity of girls and women; promoting their economic and social rights and empowerment; and strengthening girls’ and women’s voice and participation.

SDG 5 – a docking station for the other SDGs

“Women are an essential force for the implementation of the Agenda 2030. I advocate for inclusive development that leaves no-one behind.” With these words, Queen Mathilde of Belgium opened the event and simultaneously set the thematic frame for the discussions: the central role of women as designers and developers on the way to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and the obligation of the community of nations to strengthen the position of women and girls, which is clearly expressed in SDG 5: achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.

Economic empowerment – setbacks instead of progress

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta, explained that in terms of eliminating gender inequality, we were not only moving forward too slowly but were in fact partly moving backward – also in the global North. According to the 2017 Global Gender Gap Report of the World Economic Forum, which benchmarks 144 countries on their progress to gender parity, it was shifting into reverse in 27 states. Within the European Union, progress in economic participation of women has slipped backwards in twelve countries. And according to Eurostat, women working fulltime in the EU would need an average salary rise of 19 per cent in order to attain the level of men’s income. 

A recently published World Bank report containing surveys in 141 countries demonstrates what this means in terms of prosperity in society as a whole. Because of the lifetime earning gap of women, the global economy is losing out 160 trillion US dollars a year. The President of Niger, Mahmadou Issoufou, took his country as an example to show what this implied for individual women.

In Niger, the employment level of men is at 90 per cent, compared to that of women at a mere 40 per cent: Without professional activity and the ability to enrich themselves, women run a greater risk of poverty. “Three out of four people in poverty in Niger are female,” the President noted. In addition, as a rule, women have less access to education and resources, and they are bearing the blunt of climate change, for example through working in agriculture. And in the event of catastrophes, they are the first victims.

"Equality is not about destroying differences between women and men; it is about creating a context in which each and every person can pursue their legitimate aspirations and be respected in the fullness of their human dignity."
Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, President of Malta 

One of the most devastating human rights violations

Violence against women and girls in all its forms was a second recurring theme at the event. As the numerous examples once again demonstrate, it is a world-wide phenomenon, cutting across all generations, nationalities, communities and spheres of our societies, irrespective of age, ethnicity or other background. In the EU, for example, one out of every three women over the age of 15 years has been a victim of physical or sexual violence, one out of 20 has been violated, and 55 per cent of women are victims of sexual harassment. 

And rape continues to be applied as a military weapon. Only recently, this was once again revealed in the course of terrorist attacks in the Sahel region, which were condemned by several speakers, including Denis Mukwege, President and Founder of the Panzi Hospital and Foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In his hospital, which was opened in1999, this gynaecologist and surgeon treated at least 50,000 survivors of sexual violence. 

“In conflicts, rape has become a weapon par excellence,” Mukwege, who holds numerous awards, told the meeting, referring to the devastating consequences regarding the physical and mental health of women that usually lasted a lifetime. Based on his experience, he tried to start local consciousness-raising campaigns, which however proved to be extremely difficult. After all, it is the soldiers themselves, i.e. those who are there to protect people, who are the authors of the crimes. For years, Mukwege has been campaigning for a unanimous condemnation of sexual violence and for bringing rapists to court to charge them with crimes against humanity – which led to him being threatened with murder in his home country.

Success stories

Although there is still a long way to go, the speakers were also able to refer to a number of positive developments towards gender equity. In Malta, for example, five years after access to free childcare centres had been created, there was six per cent more female work participation, President Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca told the meeting. The Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg, personally prescribes parental leave for male representatives of her Cabinet, for: “Strengthening the role of fathers is an important part of promoting gender equality.” 

Government representatives of numerous African nations also reported on reforms that have been implemented or that are in the pipeline – from education and health to the role of women in economy and decision-making. For example, Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has introduced an insurance scheme guaranteeing women further payment of their salary during maternal leave; in the course of the most recent parliamentary elections, the President of Liberia, George Manneh Weah, raised the 30 per cent proportion of women demanded by the national elections commission to 50 per cent in his own party. Not only is there a female vice president in his government, the country now has its first woman deputy chief of staff of armed forces, as he proudly reported. 

In Burkina Faso, the school enrolment rate for girls is now at around 86.4 per cent. In addition, vocational trainings and measures for job creation had been specially introduced for young girls, President Roch Marc Christian Kaboré told the meeting. In order to address the uneven distribution of resources, 34 per cent of land made available by the state had been given to women. In the coming five years, Niger’s President, Mahmadou Issoufou, intends to double the level of education of girls and reduce disparities by school drop-outs. Above all young girls ought to be kept in education till the age of 16. Not only is this to help them be better prepared for jobs in modern economic sectors; the President also hopes to bring an end to child marriage and early pregnancies through education – a measure by which, according to a World Bank study, the country could increase its GDP by 3.8 per cent. 

In this context, journalist Zain Verjee reminded the meeting that each year, 214 million women in developing countries seek to avoid pregnancies, but lack access to contraception. And yet this was a cost-effective policy. Just nine US dollars per person and year was needed to ensure women’s sexual and reproductive health – while right now, only half of that amount was being invested, Verjee criticised.

A change of mindset is needed

Also, there had to be an end to discriminatory legislation, such as in inheritance or family law, many of the speakers demanded. But even if legal and political measures are good, they will not address the root of the problem as long as mental and cultural leaps continue to exist. Or, as Liberia’s President put it: “Discrimination, violence and marginalisation are embedded in our cultures”. As long as exercising gender-based violence in conflicts was accepted behaviour, nothing was going to change. “We need persistent efforts to change the mindsets of people”, he concluded.

What to take back home?

•By the end of the EDD's, some key facts and demands concerning the three keywords “protect, empower, invest” had emerged:

• It is high time to hold leaders accountable against female genital mutilation and child marriage.

• Sexual violence has to be prosecuted; the survivors should be integrated in peace-building processes.

• In preventing conflict, international organisations should rely more on early warnings of women’s groups on the ground.

• Gender equality is not just a moral and fairness issue, but is also important for economic development.

• A fairer distribution of time and labour between women and men would be good for both.

• Seventy per cent of decisions about household consumption are made by women, so it is women who should drive change.

• If we want to close the gender gap we have to make sure that women are economically empowered – through education, capacity-building, access to finance and access to decision-making.

• Migration puts women in vulnerable situations, but can help them to reach a better economic status.

• Digitisation holds a huge potential to empower women and girls. Moreover, it is a crucial factor in achieving disabled women's participation.

 Silvia Richter, editor, Rural 21