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The European Union’s Gender Action Plan: an empowering step for women?

August 5, 2010
Picture of a young Kenyan woman, taken by Hannah Nicholls

Women in developing countries stand to gain from the Gender Action Plan. Photo taken by Hannah Nicholls.

As the world’s largest contributor of development aid, the European Union (EU) has a huge level of influence on the lives of women in developing countries. However, gender equality in the EU itself varies considerably.

Whilst the Scandinavian Member States have some of the most progressive policies in the world, soaring high on the Global Gender Gap Index, a prominent measure of gender equality across 134 countries worldwide, Italy (rank 72), Czech Republic (74), Cyprus (80) and Greece (86) all rank poorly.

Therefore, it comes as little surprise that a joint effort by the EU Member States on producing a Gender Action Plan is somewhat convoluted.

On the 14th June 2010 the Foreign Affairs Council, which brings together Ministers working on Foreign Affairs in the EU, adopted the EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Development.  The plan outlines the steps to be taken by the EU and its Member States to accelerate progress toward the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) focused on women, namely MDG 3, to promote gender equality, and MDG 5, to improve maternal health by the year 2015.

The Gender Action Plan encourages dialogue on gender equality, gender mainstreaming and suggests specific policies that will accelerate the achievement of the MDGs related to gender. Its implementation will be undertaken by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union.

The Gender Action Plan comes at a crucial time, when compared to the other goals, the MDGs aimed at women are showing little or no progress. More critically, while gender mainstreaming in development policy has the potential for the largest impact on women living in poverty, currently only 35% of the EU’s external aid includes gender sensitive elements.

The plan was an opportunity to truly increase the number of policies for gender equality, consequently improving the lives of women in the developing world by going beyond superficial development targets and attempting to address oppressive societal attitudes towards women.

Disappointingly, the final draft of the Plan falls short in a number of key areas.

It has excluded specific actions on trade, agriculture, employment, education, health, and land ownership which were included in the draft document. The removal of these actions in the final draft means that the capacity of the Action Plan to ensure that women are included in development policy is severely diminished.

Secondly, despite including provisions for dialogue with civil society organizations, ActionAid notes that the most recent round of consultations in Brussels, which was the first in two years, lasted a mere one and a half hours, and limited the number of comments by civil society representative to five.

This would not be the first time that development policy hailed by donors as empowering for women fails women on the ground, and is tainted by a lack of transparent decision-making processes.

While the EU and its Member States have previously created a number of agreements, policies and guidelines and ratified a number of treaties for gender equality, implementing these policies has often been a low priority for partner countries and donors. For example, policies intending to increase the participation of women in government have resulted in nominal positions being with little real power, which are filled by the wives, daughters and sisters of male politicians, resulting in few changes in policy. Some female MPs argue this has occurred in Uganda.

The risk remains that even the limited recommendations in the Gender Action Plan will be similarly distorted and watered-down, becoming merely a box-ticking exercise for the EU. This could be seriously problematic for women living in poverty. While the EU continues to exclude the contributions of civil society organisations and limit their criticism, it will be able to claim that it is working towards the empowerment of women, while deflecting commitment to other efforts which may be more effective.

Ultimately, discrimination against and the oppression of women remain ingrained in almost all societies worldwide, which is something that will take significantly longer than the five years left before the MDG target year of 2015 to change. And yet, when women are able to effectively participate in all areas of society, becoming involved in political decision-making, with access to economic opportunities, and fully partaking in social and cultural activities, a sustainable process of genuine empowerment is achieved which goes far beyond the limited scope of development targets.

Whilst this Gender Action Plan may not represent a complete roadmap towards achieving this lofty aim, it is now up to the EU and its Member States to use it as a starting point from which to build upon. Until then, it will be impossible to foresee a future in which women experience true equality and empowerment.

Hannah Nicholls works in Brussels, at the heart of the European Union, in an NGO working in disability and development. She has a Master’s Degree in International Development, specialising in gender and disability and a Bachelor’s Degree in Economics, specialising in development economics. She was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in Hong Kong, Great Britain and Belgium.

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