What was there to celebrate for Africa and Europe on International Women’s Day this year?

On Sunday, the world celebrated International Women’s Day. But the 8 March celebrations are not the only ones marking the importance of women’s empowerment. The year 2020 also marks the 25th anniversary since the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was adopted at the Fourth World Conference on Women, back in 1995. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the UN Security Council resolution on women, peace and security – also known as UNSCR 1325 – which is the building block of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. These two important documents fuel the women’s rights agenda at the international level, and are at the heart of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 5 on gender equality.

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    The EU-AU summit in October will be an opportunity for both continents to clarify and sharpen common objectives in a new (or, rather, revitalised) partnership, including around women’s rights. As a teaser, let’s look at global developments and what they mean for Africa-Europe cooperation on women’s rights and gender equality.

    The global women’s rights agenda is under pressure


    The UN Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) planned to hold its annual session this week and the next, to review the implementation of the Beijing Declaration. Before being cancelled for the risk of coronavirus spreading, its members planned to discuss the challenges affecting the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action in view of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

    Moving from the international to the continental arenas, support for the women’s right agenda and gender equality remains strong in Europe and Africa – at least on the surface. In 2018, the AU launched a 10-year strategy for gender equality and women’s empowerment. This continental initiative complements others at the regional and national level, with many regional bodies adopting action plans on gender equality. Last week, the European Commission launched its Gender Equality Strategy setting out objectives and actions to make progress by 2025 towards a gender-equal Europe. Also, the EU is working on its third gender action plan, building on a well-monitored track record of advancing gender targets in its external action.

    But global tides are against the women’s right agenda. We are witnessing a growing polarisation between countries moving towards a more feminist foreign policy (such as Sweden, Canada and Mexico) and those becoming more antagonistic towards women’s rights (like the United States under the Trump administration, clawing back on reproductive rights through the ‘global gag rule’). There is pushback on women’s rights, LGBTQ+ equality, and human rights in general. It has been impossible to find consensus in the CSW and, as a result of all this pushback, UN Women will not hold another global women’s conference in 2020.

    Celebrating women, peace and security – but not too much


    In October, the 20th anniversary of UN resolution 1325 will give us the opportunity to look at the progress made on the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda. Both Europe and Africa have developed strategies and policies on how to advance, though with quite some differences. There is a high level of support for the agenda across both continents, with more than half of AU and EU member states having adopted national action plans to implement WPS/1325.

    A range of continental initiatives are taking off in Africa, such as FemWise-Africa, a network of female mediators. Gender experts from the FemWise network have been deployed to the AU liaison office in South Sudan as well as Khartoum to support the AU’s work there.

    The actions of the AU’s strategy on gender equality are aligned with the WPS agenda, but the AU has no overarching framework to spur implementation across the continent. Instead, it has set up a monitoring framework and appointed a special envoy on WPS. The EU has appointed a strategic advisor on gender/WPS, Ambassador Mara Marinaki, and has sought to integrate its gender action plans with its EU Strategic Approach to women, peace and security to avoid working in silos, in the hope that efforts on gender and women, peace and security issues will amplify each other.

    Missed opportunities and gender-blind spots


    There seems to be no shortage of laudable efforts and shiny policies. But as always, implementation remains key. This is no unnecessary luxury. There is still some way to go to achieve the targets set under SDG 5 and important opportunities are still lost, globally as well as locally

    The resolution drafted after the 2019 annual debate on sexual violence in conflict in the UN Security Council did not reflect previously agreed language and proposals to improve accountability for perpetrators. Several members of the Council, including Germany and South Africa, might want to avoid a similar failure this year. But disagreements do not stop at the international level. Within Europe and Africa, conservative forces are calling into question agreed policy on sexual and reproductive health and rights.

    In Sudan, while women played a pivotal role in the street protests, they were largely excluded from decision-making bodies of the opposition coalition Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC).

    As efforts to push the implementation of the WPS agenda are multiplying, some warn of pitfalls. Efforts to increase female participation in peace operations, for example, risks instrumentalising female peacekeepers in a way that contributes to gender inequality with an adverse effect on women’s participation.

    Other aspects are insufficiently integrated into existing policies or instruments (such as trust funds). Migration is a good example of this. The 2014 and 2017 EU-Africa declarations on migration and mobility don’t really refer to the gendered aspects of migration. The African Common Migration Framework for Africa includes a chapter on gender and migration, but neither the European Agenda on Migration nor the 2016 Migration Partnership Framework mention gender-sensitivity or gender mainstreaming.

    The new EU-Africa strategy is an opportunity to design a gender, migration and development agenda by using the Global Compact on Migration framework. According to UN Women, the implementation of the compact provides an opportunity to the rights, needs and situations of vulnerable migrant women and girls, and put in place gender-responsive migration policies, laws, programmes and services.

    Vacancy notice: Gender champions


    There is room, even a need, for champions to safeguard the women’s rights and gender equality agenda, and to add a layer of quality and commitment to it. Some AU and EU member states, including South Africa, Germany and Sweden, are in the firing line. South Africa has made women’s economic empowerment and gender equality a priority for its 2020 AU presidency. Germany can amplify this during its presidency of the European Council, starting this summer. But collectively, the impact of a joint EU-AU call for action to push SDG5 in the widest possible sense would be both timely and much needed during this crucial year.


    The views are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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