Promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls are essential aspects of truly fair and sustainable development. This concept is spelt out in the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development which states that “fulfilling gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls contributes decisively to progress on all goals and targets.”

Progress is slow and uneven in many parts of the world. The European Union is at the forefront of gender equality in the world. Out of the 20 best performers in gender equality 14 are EU Member States. The European Union’s commitment to gender equality materialises through several agreements and treaties, and is founded on the idea that gender equality is a fundamental value of the Union.

International Women’s Day, celebrated on March 8th, is an important opportunity to remember the EU’s role in promoting gender equality, particularly with regard to cooperation with partner countries.

The first EU Gender Equality Strategy 2020-2025, which sets out the main actions to be taken over the next five years and commits to ensuring that the gender perspective is integrated into all EU policy areas, including external action, was adopted in March 2020. The document recognises gender inequality as a global problem and the fight against it as a central objective of the EU’s external action, announcing the launch, in 2020 still, of the 3rd action plan for gender equality and women’s empowerment in external relations.

In November 2020, the European Commission published the new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 (GAP III), which provides the EU political and operational roadmap for the promotion of gender equality worldwide by combating the structural causes of inequality and adopting a transforming approach for the empowerment of women and girls, namely those who face multiple forms of discrimination.

This is the third Action Plan on Gender Equality of the EU external action and was considered by several Civil Society organisations, including Concord Europe, as a step in the right direction, especially when it comes to addressing the causes of gender inequality. Concord Europe’s analysis produced some recommendations to ensure greater impact of GAP III, namely the call for Member States to systematically integrate gender equality and the rights of women and girls in the dialogue with partner countries, the need to ensure quality and public reporting on GAP III by Member States, and the importance of ensuring that funding of local women’s rights organisations increases significantly. While recognising the importance of the commitment to ensure that at least 85% of all EU external actions have gender equality as a significant or primary objective, and that 20% of Official Development Aid (ODA) is allocated to addressing the causes of gender inequalities with the prioritisation of actions where gender equality is the primary objective, Concord Europe also believes that setting a financing objective, rather than having a fixed number of actions, would give a better sense of the share of EU funding that contributes to gender equality, and it would be more aligned with the OECD/DAC gender markers.

Civil Society highlights the major challenges in the implementation of GAP III – including funding systems and mechanisms for involving feminist organisations. However, political will on its own is also a barrier within the European Union. And for this very reason, Concord’s recommendations mostly point to the commitments of Member States in Council Conclusions to ensure countries’ engagements in the global implementation of GAP III in their external action. However, in December 2020 three Member States of the European Union (Hungary, Poland and Bulgaria) refused to acknowledge the term gender equality in the document, which prevented the Council Conclusions from being adopted. The disagreement over the concept extends to other European policies; countries like Hungary and Poland, whose nationalist and conservative governments adopt domestic policies that undermine the rights of women and LGBTI people, are demanding the elimination of “gender equality” from EU documents.

Council Conclusions on GAP III are not binding for the implementation of the Plan. Nevertheless, the position of the EU as a global leader in the fight for Gender Equality, is weakened, as the Vice President of Concord Europe, Céline Mias, explains, “The lack of GAP III Council Conclusions, the backlash against women’s rights and gender equality inside the EU itself, as well as inconsistency on gender equality at Member State and Commission levels, does not bode well for the EU positioning itself as a global leader on gender equality, despite its various strong policy documents and existing global commitments.”

Also in December, the Presidency of the Council issued presidency conclusions on the GAP III under the German Presidency, supported by all other Member States, which reaffirm gender equality, women’s and girls’ rights and empowerment at the heart of European values. These Conclusions underscore further that “Full coherence between external and internal action increases EU credibility, and contributes to better results and impact, in line with the principle of policy coherence for sustainable development.”

The lack of unanimous support for GAP III in the European Union is a reminder that progress on gender equality is neither inevitable nor irreversible. In addition to growing populist and anti-human rights movements that we have seen, the Covid-19 pandemic itself is a clear threat to the progress achieved; women are disproportionately affected in terms of loss of income, access to health and education, and increased gender-based violence, among other dimensions. However, this disproportionate impact does not come as a surprise, considering that gender inequality is a structural problem in societies and in all areas of social, economic, and political life the signs are there.

The aftermath of COVID-19 will offer a fundamental opportunity to address the structural causes of inequality, and rebuild fairer and more inclusive societies. The progress towards a sustainable and fair world is entirely connected to gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls worldwide. As stated by Maria Jose Moreno Ruiz, Gender Justice Director for Oxfam International “Only by fighting for universal human rights and guaranteeing equal and diverse representation of all genders is at the heart of any COVID-19 recovery, we can rebuild better and transform our societies.”

The European Union, whose values and principles are anchored in democracy and human rights, has an important role to play in building a world where all people enjoy their full rights to well-being and equality, free from poverty and exploitation – and in this vision, gender equality is a fundamental and cross-cutting dimension. While this was already part of our reality, it has become even more prevalent with the impact of a pandemic crisis that has unveiled interdependencies and deepened weaknesses and inequalities: the fight for a fair and sustainable world will only be achieved through a transformative agenda, with active participation of citizens, based on social justice and gender equality.

This article was co-financed by the European Union. Its content is the sole responsibility of the Portuguese Platform of NGDOs and does not necessarily reflect the position of the European Union.

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