The EU is still rightfully seen as a global gender equality champion and, although it is not an easy task, feminism should be at the heart of its foreign policy agenda, writes Serap Altinisik.
Serap Altinisik is the representative of Plan International to the EU, a group working to advance children’s rights and equality for girls in the EU’s external action.
Whether it makes the headlines or not, the Venezuelan crisis is very much alive.
More than 5.5 million, 25% of whom are children, have been forced to flee to other countries, mainly Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. This number is expected to reach a total of eight million displaced people.
The European Commission qualifies the Venezuelan crisis as a “forgotten” one in their 2020 assessment, a term referring to “severe, protracted humanitarian crisis situations where affected populations are receiving no or insufficient international aid and where there is no political commitment to solve the crisis, due in part to a lack of media interest”.
But there is some revived hope within humanitarian communities that things might change.
For months, reporters in Latin America are researching Venezuelan migration, speaking with displaced people and documenting their experiences. A few days ago, the international community met under the auspices of the Canadian government to pledge their solidarity with Venezuelan refugees and migrants.
Expectedly, the EU was one of the most important participants with the financial gravitas to match: Commissioner Janez Lenarčič pledged €147 million that will be spread between humanitarian, development and conflict-related operations.
Financial support is paramount. It can help cover the needs of the ones most in need like access to healthcare, education, shelter and nutrition. Nevertheless, it is not sufficient to prevent adversity within the Venezuelan crisis – or any crisis for that matter.
With World Refugee Day a few days ago, we need to ask ourselves how can the EU’s external action become a meaningful support mechanism that goes beyond financial contributions. Part of the answer to this is feminism.
Feminism is where evidence takes us
A crisis exacerbates existing inequalities, and gender inequalities are at the top of that list. Emergencies affect everyone but evidence shows that the lived experiences of girls and women are very different to the ones of boys and men.
A recent study by Plan International showed that rape, sexual abuse, harassment, and forced prostitution are the main concerns for refugee and migrant Venezuelan girls in Ecuador, Peru, and Colombia.
Their struggles are unequivocally tied to their gender.
This is only logical. Our background and personal characteristics are largely defining our lived experience. In this case, interviewed displaced girls shared that sexual violence, early pregnancies and forced marriage prevent them from accessing health, education or have a decent standard of living.
We need to pay attention to this as it is by no means relevant only to the Venezuelan context. Whatever support the EU offers needs to take into consideration people’s lived experiences instead of grouping them in one, big, convenient term of “refugees”. If we do that, feminism is not an ideological response. It is a response based on evidence.
A feminist external action is not an easy task. Even within the EU, there is push-back, perhaps most famously depicted by Hungary and Poland.
At the same time, the EU is still seen as a global gender equality champion – and rightfully so. The Commission is becoming increasingly vocal about this. The recent Gender Action Plan is the most ambitious to date.
The Child Rights Strategy a bit less so, but still pushes the way forward. Looking at our leaders, Commissioner Urpilainen, one of the main voices of the EU external action, seems willing to walk the talk and include gender in policies in a meaningful way. This is a start, but it’s not enough.
Turning the EU into a global feminist champion
If the EU wants to succeed internationally and have a long-lasting impact, our institutions should not shy away from our values. They need to harness their power and turn them into a serious external policy tool.
To start doing this, the EU needs to mainstream an intersectional and gender transformative approach into all of its policies.
This would mean gender-mainstreaming the work of DG INTPA, DG ECHO, the EEAS, as well as one of EU Delegations. Gender advisors need to be present throughout the institutions with an actually influential role. EU-funded programmes need to be gender transformative by default, not as an option.
On the global stage, our leaders must ensure that we are aligned with our partners: gender and intersectionality need to be an integral part of absolutely everything we do, not an add-on or a negotiation chip.
There is much to suggest that the EU is serious about leveraging its power to push for a gender-equal global system – and for this, the financial muscle of the Union needs to go hand in hand with the political one.
But for our institutions to succeed, we need to stop counting on individual leaders and push for a change that is systemic and comprehensive. The crisis in Venezuela is only one of our many reminders.