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I am honoured to open this event to mark the launch of the new EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Relations. It goes by the name GAP III and was adopted today by the Commission. And what better day to do this than today - the international day for the elimination of violence against women.
Gender equality is a political priority of the EU and a universally recognised human right. It is essential for our well-being, economic growth, prosperity, good governance, and indeed for peace and security.
This is about women empowerment for sure. But it goes far beyond ‘just’ the equality between women and men. All people, in all their diversity, should be free to live their chosen life, and thrive socially and economically. To participate and take a lead as equals. To define themselves freely, love who they want and live their lives as they choose.
As Europeans we tend to be quite proud of our standards when it comes to human rights, gender equality and gender balance. But reality is not always what we think it is. Despite appearances, even in Europe women are not as empowered as they should be. When I attend official meetings, it always strikes me when I see a big gender imbalance. Too often, there are hardly any women at the many meetings I take part in. I am also keenly aware that in Europe and beyond, members of the LGBTQI community all too often face discrimination, obstacles and exclusion.
And we know that COVID-19 has brought significant setbacks on the global work on equality. Every day we can see civil society organisations, including women’s and LGBTIQ organisations facing shrinking civic and democratic space.
So there is still a lot to do to build a truly gender equal world and we are committed to do so. The adoption of the third Action Plan right now – in the middle of a pandemic – is an important and ambitious step.
As the name suggests, it is a call to action. And I want to talk especially about that. It is good to list all the principles we hold dear. But it is even better to take action.
Thankfully, when it comes to women’s empowerment the EU has already done a lot outside the EU in recent years, also in difficult environments.
Take Yemen. Thanks to an an EU-funded project, the women of Abs, a town in western Yemen, have been employed to work on solar panels. Now the community can rely on cheaper and renewable energy, while women have been trained and have a stable income.
Or think of Chaaya. She is a female Indian electric auto rickshaw driver in Bangalore. She broke the age-old norm of the male dominated profession of the Tuk Tuk service – with the help of the EU-funded Namma Auto Project. She was trained and gained easier access to financing options.
These examples explain some of the progress that has been achieved globally. But we all know the deep-rooted shortcomings that still persist both in the North and global South. The challenges to gender equality are as varied as the contexts in which they emerge and call for context specific responses. And the Gender Action Plan has been drafted exactly for this purpose – to try to cover all the gaps.
Despite our work and good intentions, not a single country in Europe, or anywhere else in the world, is on track to achieve gender equality by 2030, as we hoped with Sustainable Development Goal No 5 on Gender Equality.
To the contrary, in the current global landscape we see gender equality and women’s rights are questioned and violated. And the COVID-19 pandemic is making things worse. Notably on Gender-Based Violence. This is often called “the silent pandemic”. It is a big problem, both under-reported and under-addressed.
So, here you see the need for the European Union to have a new Gender Action Plan. It is an operational roadmap for the EU to work together with Member States, other EU institutions and with all stakeholders, including multilateral and regional partners as well as civil society.
We need to involve more and better civil society organisations, starting from youth and women’s movements. And we need to bring the private sector on board, to help promote gender equality in business and the economy.
With our Action Plan, we will tackle all dimensions of discrimination. We will pay special attention to discrimination based on age, ethnicity or sexual orientation, to women with disabilities and migrant women.
On the latter: I will always remember the story of Najat, a 12 year-old girl I met last October, when visiting a UN migrant centre for Ethiopian migrant returnees. She had just returned from Saudi Arabia, and what I heard from her is beyond what a child should ever have to endure.
This Plan is about helping Najat and all migrant girls around the world.
With our plan, we want to trigger a real transformation. We need examples, we need good results, we need role models.
Take Tufaha, Aziza and Amine, from Libya. They are a group of entrepreneurs, who have responded to the challenge of the global pandemic by creating an innovative educational app ‘Panda’. It is an EU-funded initiative to help Benghazi’s students.
Or Aizat in Kirgizstan. Two years ago, together with 25 other young people with disabilities, she had entered the IT Academy as part of the 'Programming without Barriers' project, implemented by the Kyrgyz Association of Software and Services Developers with the support of the EU.
Take Jennifer in Uganda who, together with other teachers in the EU-funded Education for Life programme, took the initiative to walk around a refugee settlement knocking on the learners’ doors to offer home schooling and support, especially for girls.
The EU has been in the front-line helping women’s participation in the political and decision-making processes of countries in conflict, like in Syria, Libya, Colombia, Afghanistan or Yemen.
With EU support, the Gaziantep Women Platform was launched last year to enhance women’s participation in the political process for Syria.
We want to go further and help make the exception become the norm.
The GAP III integrates one of the key pillars of our EU action on conflict prevention: the EU policy framework on Women, Peace and Security.
Women should not be seen only as the victims and the most vulnerable members of society that only need protection. On the contrary. They are very important active agents of change, instrumental to achieving peace and stability.
That is why Human Rights and the full so-called ‘Women, Peace and Security agenda’ are integrated into our new training programmes. Such as the one provided by EUCAP Sahel Mali to the internal security forces.
Once again: women need to be empowered, to be part of the decision-making processes in all settings.
All means all: from policy makers, to business community, to civil society.
If we want to build back better, as we now often say. If we want our societies to become better, then women and girls have to be at the centre of our decisions and decision making everywhere.
This is my commitment as well as our common goal.
We owe it to Najat and all women and girls around the world. They want to determine their own identity and decide on their own future. We should be on their side.
Watch the video here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L8AJLVI4BQg&feature=youtu.be