EU must stand up for gender rights in development policy

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The biggest battle for the future of international development is the ideological one: deciding whether to make women and men, and their sexual and reproductive health and rights, equal, writes Neil Datta.

Neil Datta, secretary of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, is attending the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women from 4 to 15 March in New York.

"Public awareness of the potential to drive development by advancing gender equality is gaining momentum. And I sincerely hope that this swell in popular opinion will be reflected here at the 57th session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women.

For these two weeks the main subject under discussion is the elimination and prevention of all forms of violence against women and girls – a subject that is central to human rights and therefore to development. And as the brutal rape and murder of Damini on a bus in Delhi last December showed, violence against women is a subject where there is still much work to be done.

This week the ranks of experts from disparate fields promoting the gender agenda in development were joined by the UN’s special rapporteur on the right to food, Olivier De Schutter. In his report on “Women’s rights and the right to food”, he identifies the clear causal link between improving gender equality and improving food security. In doing so he presents further evidence of just how pivotal the issue of gender equality is in bringing about sustainable development. This fact does not only ring true for women who are farming whilst raising families.

The face of global poverty and inequality is predominantly female. Girls and women have been the hardest hit by the global recession. They suffer disproportionately badly in crisis zones and as a result of harmful traditional practices. HIV and AIDS has become increasingly feminised. Girls are frequently denied the same right to food, education or paid employment as their brothers, and are too often forced to marry men chosen for them by others. Pregnancy and childbirth – a uniquely female undertaking – are one of the most dangerous events that any human in the developing world can face, and constitute the single largest cause of death for young women in developing countries – even above HIV/AIDS, war or any disease. And the poorer the women are, the more pregnancies they have to face.

The list of injustices could extend to pages, and yet too often girls and women are denied the support they need to succeed and bypassed by development assistance.

Since 2000 the international community has agreed that gender equality is one of the biggest challenges that must be achieved in order to reduce global poverty. So important, in fact, that it deserves its own Millennium Development Goal. But the danger of it being dealt with in exclusion is that the complexity, and its interwoven connections with other areas of development, will be neglected, as the battle for gender equality is categorised alongside the battle for the poor to become rich or the sick to become healthy. Women need the right to be valued, respected, protected and enabled to succeed. And in the follow-up to the Millennium Development Goals our leaders must set the standard.

Unlike most other development challenges, gender equality requires ideological social change to take place. Social change that has often taken decades, generations or even centuries to come about in places where it has already started to occur. The argument to provide money, medicine, education, clean water, housing, bed nets, infrastructure or working toilets is a simple one that requires little ideological debate to agree with. And these are ideas for which quantifiable indicators can be found to placate cash-strapped donors in search of value for money. But how can we objectively measure how equal women are, and just how much our development assistance has influenced this process?

To place women on an equal footing with men – and reap the untold benefits in the months, years or decades after doing so – is far less simple, and faces entrenched interests unlike any other area of development. Ending child marriage, female genital mutilation or honour crimes, whilst being flagrant abuses of women and girls’ human rights and stifling the chances of development, is not an easy task. For in some cultures such practices are wrongly tolerated, or even encouraged, in the name of culture and tradition.

In Europe we too still have progress to make on the same journey. Sexist attitudes, archaic maternity leave laws and insufficient access to nursery places (to name but a few) too often make life for women disproportionately challenging compared to their male counterparts. These are the challenges facing us in bringing about inclusive global development for all members of society. Challenges that will only have been resolved when we see – and are not surprised by – equal female participation in politics, as the heads of business and in other positions of high standing.

The European Commission is starting to voice its opinion on the future of the international development agenda. Its “Decent Life for all by 2030” is admirable in its overall sentiment, but regrettably it seems that in focusing on the “economic, social and environmental” aspects of development, gender will not be one of its overarching themes. It will also be interesting to see whether such a document, or whatever follows it from the EU institutions, can gain traction with decision makers, and what place women can achieve in the considerations that seem set to dominate the EU’s vision of the sustainable development agenda. After all, there are few factors that contribute more to unsustainable development than women who are denied their right to plan their family size.

My immediate hopes to find an influential international document that will launch the gender agenda in international development therefore lie with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. The emerging issue of the “Key gender equality issues to be reflected in the post-2015 development framework” will be discussed here next week. I hope that – unlike last year – we can reach an agreement in 2013, and that the reports of some regressive countries seeking to keep women down will prove to be untrue.

The face of global poverty – regardless of what type of poverty we are talking about – is overwhelmingly female. To achieve global development we need to protect the rights of women and girls, specifically their sexual and reproductive rights, thus helping prevent gender-based and sexual violence and driving development in doing so. Women need a functioning legal framework that will protect their rights and offer them physical, mental and medical support.

Perpetrators of sexual violence must also be brought to justice. The zero draft at the Commission of the Status of Women contains all these elements, and we need strong leadership from UNFPA, UN Women and the member states to keep them in until the end. And then I hope the European Union and the world’s other leaders will take heed of what is agreed on here."