Women’s Day: No women? No development!

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

During extensive travels to the EU’s partner countries, the crucial role of women and girls in a society’s social and economic development has stood out time and time again, writes European Commissioner Neven Mimica.

Neven Mimica is the European Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development and previously served as Deputy Prime Minister of Croatia.

As Commissioner for International Cooperation and Development, I regularly get a chance to see the EU’s work on the ground for myself. However, too often I see how disadvantaged women and girls are – and how huge the unused potential of their full involvement still is. That’s why gender equality and women’s empowerment are placed at the heart of the EU’s international cooperation and development and are my personal priority.

Indeed, one of the achievements I have recently been most proud of is our EU Gender Action Plan in external relations for 2016-2020. Endorsed in October of last year, the plan sends a clear signal that the European Commission, the European External Action Service and our member states attach a very strong value to achieving equality between women, men, girls and boys across the world. The plan sets out a clear, robust and ambitious vision for the EU, one that I am most pleased to be part of and contributing to in my daily work.

For me, the new EU Gender Action Plan is unique because it not only focuses on the crucial priorities for improving the lives of girls and women worldwide. It also challenges us, as European actors, to do more for women, and to implement our own policies more effectively, while consistently taking into account the gender perspective.

It lays out clear priorities, such as preventing sexual violence, ending harmful practices and fighting against human trafficking, as well as promoting positive changes, such as giving a voice and more control to women and girls over the decisions, resources and choices that will affect their lives; areas which, I’m sure you’ll agree, are essential to ensuring that they are able to live full and prosperous lives.

The Gender Action Plan does not only look outwards. It also makes us – here in the EU headquarters as well as in our delegations – take a hard look at ourselves to see how we can improve our own performance. I believe that only by doing this can we lead by example and translate our well-meaning commitments and policies into tangible action and changes on the ground.

In the current international environment, I feel particularly strongly about supporting women and girls in fragile and crisis situations, especially through education. The statistics are staggering – in countries affected by conflict, fragility and crises, 28.5 million children of primary school age and 20 million children of secondary school age are out of school, the majority of them girls. Girls are almost two and a half times more likely to be out of school if they live in conflict-affected countries and young women are nearly 90% more likely to be out of secondary school than their counterparts in countries not affected by conflict.

Behind the statistics are millions of girls suffering and lives endangered. The numbers speak for themselves. A young girl in South Sudan is three times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth than to reach the eighth grade at school. Literacy rates for girls are 40% compared to 60% for boys. These challenges are equally present in many other countries such as the Central African Republic, Sudan, northern Nigeria and Somalia.

This is something which we take extremely seriously, with over half of the EU’s bilateral development funding going to fragile and conflict affected countries. The EU has increasingly prioritised education in its emergency responses and is the first donor to commit 4% of its humanitarian funding to education in emergencies. For example, the EU Children of Peace initiative, born out of the funding received from the Nobel Peace Prize, funds humanitarian projects for children in conflict-affected regions, and approximately 1.5 million children in 26 countries have so far benefitted from it.

2015 was an exceptional year for global development and for mapping out our planet’s future. After much negotiation, a universal blueprint to wipe out extreme poverty and tackle different dimensions to achieve a sustainable development for all was unveiled in New York in September. I was delighted by a truly unique sense of commitment and urgency – and most importantly, by the centrality of women and girls in the discussions and in the new Global Goals. Let us now translate this commitment into concrete improvements for girls and women.

Achieving gender equality is clearly not something we can do alone. The task will be far from easy and the support of our partners is vital. I’m proud to say that we work closely on this aim with a wide range of equally committed partners, from UNICEF and UN Women, to Global Partnership for Education, many civil society organisations and our member states.

One thing that unites many of us who work in international development is our commitment to promoting gender equality wherever and whenever we can. I do not believe that development can happen without girls and women’s empowerment at its core. Put simply, if it doesn’t involve girls and women, it’s not development.

There is no time to lose – so on International Women’s Day this year, I’d like to invite everybody to start putting this ambitious global vision into action, now! I look to you all to consider how your own work, attitudes and behaviours can contribute to improving gender equality for us all.

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