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Putting gender equality first

Josep Borrell is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission. (Josep Borrell)
Josep Borrell is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission. (Josep Borrell)

Rarely in the world have women’s and girls’ rights been challenged in such a concerning way as they have been in Afghanistan. The EU has made it clear that future EU development assistance will depend on the respect for norms on human rights, including women’s and girls’ rights. The EU will continue to support women and girls worldwide, sticking to our values and beliefs.

Human rights, freedom, democracy and equality represent core values that make the European Union what it is. It enriches our societies and strengthens resilience. Gender equality is key for peace, security, economic prosperity and sustainable development.

That is why working on all levels to promote and safeguard progress on gender equality is a political priority and objective for the EU. The EU Gender Action Plan III and the new EU external action budget provide a road map for global action toward a gender-equal world. We work closely together with multilateral, regional and bilateral partners, including civil society organizations, to achieve those objectives. We still have a long way to go; there is no room for complacency.

In many countries, the pandemic has exacerbated existing gender inequalities across different areas: education, vocational training, health, security and safety, sexual and reproductive health and rights and economic opportunities. In addition, the COVID-19 lockdowns have often led to an increase in gender-based violence, in particular domestic violence. At the same time, a significant part of the care burden has fallen on women and girls. Workers in the informal economy and in low-skilled jobs (most of whom are women), migrants and those belonging to minorities, have been more at risk and face multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination.

Moreover, school closures have exposed girls to an increased risk of sexual exploitation, early pregnancy, child labor and forced marriage. The Malala Fund estimates that 20 million more girls risk dropping out of school, adding up to a total of 150 million girls -- equivalent to a third of the EU population -- without educational prospects.

According to a recent UN report, military spending in 2020 still outplaced the worldwide expenses on health, even in a year that was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic. For a sustainable recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to redouble our efforts to promote gender equality. 

Jutta Urpilainen, commissioner for international partnerships. (Jutta Urpilainen)
Jutta Urpilainen, commissioner for international partnerships. (Jutta Urpilainen)

Now is time to do more

This challenge now requires a global response, when we are building the future we wish for our children and grandchildren to grow up in a post-pandemic world that is more equal, more diverse and where equal opportunities are a reality. We need to address the root causes of gender inequality and discrimination in order to achieve sustainable change.

The European Union and its member states, as well as the European financial institutions have stood with the women and girls of the world throughout the pandemic. As Team Europe, we have already mobilized 46 billion euros ($51.7 billion) in support of over 130 partner countries, with a particular focus on women and youth.

Three examples as an illustration: In Nepal, we helped 1 million girls and boys continue their education through radio-based learning. In Togo, we supported the creation of a universal income scheme and the appointment of women to head new municipalities. Worldwide, the EU-UN Spotlight Initiative has helped 650,000 women and girls prevent or address violence against them, and educated 880,000 men and boys on positive masculinity, nonviolent conflict resolution and parenting.

Still, to meet the growing challenges, we need to do more. That is the purpose of the Gender Action Plan III. It promotes leadership and meaningful participation of women, girls and young people in political, economic, social and cultural life, as well as in all matters related to peace and security.

Work to get human development on track

We are now making this plan a reality with the help of the new 79.5 billion-euro NDICI-Global Europe instrument that will support the EU’s external action for the next seven years.

Support for education and particularly girls’ education will have a central role. Just as we support education in emergencies, the EU has worked with partner countries throughout the pandemic to minimize its impact on children, and to facilitate a safe return to school.

We are multiplying our efforts, from supporting women and girls’ education and economic opportunities to improving their access to sexual and reproductive health services. By 2025, 85 percent of all the EU’s new external actions -- across all sectors -- will contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment.

This is now being finalized with our partner countries based on close consultation with civil society organizations, women’s rights activists and youth.

We need to put human development back on track and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030, leaving no one behind.

It is crucial we get it right.

By Josep Borrell and Jutta Urpilainen

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Josep Borrell is high representative of the European Union for foreign affairs and security policy and vice president of the European Commission. Jutta Urpilainen is commissioner for international partnerships. -- Ed.

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