Oxfam's EU Advocacy office in Brussels

By Matti Kohonen, Oxfam’s EU policy advisor

Saturday marked International Woman’s Day, a global celebration and awareness initiative which highlights the socio-economic difficulties women face on a day to day basis, as well as ways we can tackle this. The European Union have long trumpeted their credentials on the issue, but despite on-going, promising rhetoric, the European Commission is not taking seriously the needs of women in the developing world.

In 2012, of the total European Commission overseas aid budget of over €12 billion, only 1.3% was allocated to human rights programmes, including gender equality; and just a meagre 0.2% was aimed at improving female social and economic empowerment. Hence progress on gender issues relies almost entirely on how gender equality is addressed in the 98.5% remaining nest egg.

On paper, the EU Institutions have not held back when talking about the importance of gender. They have signed several partnership agreements with poorer countries and pledged in the flagship EU Gender Action Plan to strengthen the lead role of the EU in promoting gender equality in development, and have raised the subject of violence against women. The EU has also acknowledged the need to share and promote information about the role of women in society, as outlined in the UN-backed 1995 Beijing Platform for Action.

It is important to note that some progress has been made through acting on these commitments. A Gender and Age programme, along with a useful toolkit, have been developed in order to recognise that natural disasters and human-made crises have a different impact not only on women, but the young and elderly as well. But in other areas of development, one recent NGO report shows that the EU does not even raise gender in agreements with poor countries, whilst another considers that gender mainstreaming has been too slow.

Discouragingly, when gender does make it to paper it often ends up to being a box ticking exercise. A 2013 programme of boosting food and nutrition security through EU action, for example, aims at mainstreaming gender equality and climate change, but provides no tools for measuring or evaluating the impact.

Even when gender policy is measured, it is done in a limited manner with little analysis or solutions suggested. This has been seen through the EU’s efforts to increase educational parity between girls and boys in Tanzania. Through helping finance free education for all, primary education enrolment has reached 98% in just over ten years and, impressively, girl’s enrolment has become slightly higher than their male counterparts.

However, by the time children reach secondary education, female participation has dropped to 83% in comparison to men and, by tertiary education, it has sunk to 65% of that. Whilst this helps demonstrate the uphill struggle for girls’ in higher levels of education, it does little to address the hurdles of entrenched domestic or farm servitude, teenage pregnancies and out-of-pocket payments leading to lesser participation.

Raising public awareness about female gender ‘roles’ and tackling violence against women also plays a key part in closing the gender gap. In a recent photo essay by Meeri Koutaniemi titled “A moment before mutilation”, readers are shown how two young girls brutally undergo Female Genital Mutilation in Northern Kenya. UNICEF estimates that the practice, outlawed in most countries, including Kenya since 2011 yet still carried out, has affected 125 million women and young girls across the world.

Having been published in Finland’s largest daily newspaper, the story received horrified reviews from readers:

Once again it is proven the awesome power of education. As we see in the images, I am proud to have the opportunity to go to school and live in civilized country.”

Those responsible for development aid could set a condition for assistance to put an end to these atrocities. And we, the citizens we would put pressure on decision-makers, rather than just being upset around morning coffee”

The pictures sparked a rare debate on the subject in Finland, and republished in Time Magazine under a more scandalous title of “Blood, Fear and Ritual” on 6 February, the International Day of Zero Tolerance Against Female Genital Cutting, leading to much greater awareness. The responses included a testimonial from a woman who says that she refuses to be seen as a victim, but a survivor and a fighter, and called for action to end the practice and all types of discrimination.

To close the gender gap work on gender equality and violence against women should be mainstreamed in EU aid, and more programmes should be developed that consider gender issues as the primary objective. There is a window of opportunity now as leaders allocate the EU budget for the 2014-2020 period. The European Parliament needs MEPs who defend women’s rights to ensure a far more productive EU role in closing the gender gap.

The upcoming EU elections in May provide an opportunity for citizens across Europe to make a difference, as the European Parliament has a say on how EU overseas aid is spent.

Author :