Last month, EU foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini made an inspiring announcement for advocates of women’s empowerment: the EU will contribute two million euros to train and educate Afghan women in Kazakhstan.
The central Asian country, which lies north of Afghanistan and just south of Russia, has been running this programme since 2010, contributing more than 40 million euros to educate Afghan women in fields like engineering and medicine. Those participants then return home to work, with roughly 75 per cent of them finding jobs, according to a Euractiv report on the programme. These results are the goal of the programme – to economically empower women, especially those from impoverished or war-torn nations, allowing them to live more independent lives.
Studies show that when more women work, economies grow. According to UN Women, an organisation dedicated to gender equality and women empowerment, “An increase in female labour force participation – or a reduction in the gap between women’s and men’s labour force participation – results in faster economic growth”. Economic growth is a huge contributing factor to stabilising countries and reducing migration. EU member states, especially over the last few years, have taken note.
Italy, for example, in November last year signed an agreement with UN Women to establish a new programme promoting women’s equal access to economic opportunities in Palestine. Launched in May 2018, the one-year-long programme focuses on enhancing the technical skills of women entrepreneurs and providing them with financial assistance. The Italian Agency for Development Cooperation, UN Women, and the International Labour Organisation are providing 500,000 euros for the project.
France too recognises the importance of women’s empowerment and is pledging funds to the cause. “France is back and so is feminism”, said French Minister of State for Gender Equality Marlène Schiappa at the 62nd session of the Commission on the Status of Women in March.
Schiappa announced that France will be devoting 50 per cent of its development aid to projects that support equality between girls and boys by 2022. France is also increasing its support for the She Decides initiative by pledging 10 million euros to promote the protection of sexual and reproductive rights.
Noting that women’s rights are a worldwide issue that necessitates international collaboration, Schiappa remarked that France is working with the United States and Canada on women’s empowerment, with Sweden on female political empowerment, and with India and Senegal on women’s and girls’ health in rural areas.
Although a lack of women’s empowerment may seem to be concentrated to third world countries across Africa, religiously conservative states in the Middle East, or other impoverished or war-torn and non-democratic nations, it is important to remember that women’s issues also need advocating in developed countries and Western democracies.
Spain has been taking this to heart with its Equal Opportunities Strategic Plan. From 2014 to 2016, the Spanish government allocated 3.1 million euros to support the endeavour, which promotes “effective equality of treatment and opportunities between women and men. In the first instance, for reasons of justice and guardianship of fundamental rights. But also because it is an essential element of economic development and social cohesion”.
The plan was extended to 2020, on the heels of some notable success. Two out of three entrepreneurs in Spain are now women, nearly 180,000 women have received a pension increase due to a maternity supplement, and the Spanish government continues to work to reduce the gap between men and women in senior management positions, as well as the wage gap on the whole (which decreased by four points from 2012 to 2017).
Spain has also labelled the fight against gender violence a “national priority” and has vowed to work toward a comprehensive response to all forms of violence, including sexual assault, sex trafficking, female genital mutilation, and forced marriage.
Equality between women and men is one of the EU’s fundamental values. In fact, it was enshrined in the Rome Treaty, the founding document of the EU signed in 1957, which included a provision on equal pay.
Today, the European Commission’s work on gender equality, based on the “Strategic engagement for gender equality 2016-2019”, is focused on five priority areas:
- increasing the number of females in the labour market;
- reducing the gender pay gap;
- promoting equality between women and men in decision-making;
- combating gender-based violence;
- supporting gender equality and women’s rights around the world.
“Women’s empowerment is not only a matter of human rights and social justice. It is about development, it is about human growth, it is about fulfilling the potential of the country”, said Mogherini at the “Empowering Women in Afghanistan” conference in Astana, before announcing the EU’s two million euro pledge to train and educate Afghan women in Kazakhstan.