Women must be at the heart of EU-Africa strategy

New focus must promote gender equality and build bridges between African and European women, argues Chrysoula Zacharopoulou.
Chrysoula Zacharopoulou

By Chrysoula Zacharopoulou

Chrysoula Zacharopoulou (FR, RE), is a member of Parliament’s Women’s Rights Committee and rapporteur on the EU-Africa Strategy

21 Oct 2020

This year, the European Week of Action for Girls was organised in a new context. 2020 should have been the year of gender equality and empowerment of women and girls and we were in the process of preparing the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration on gender equality when we were hit by the full force of the Coronavirus health crisis.

COVID-19 has changed our lives, undermined our certainties and accentuated pre-existing inequalities the world over and is affecting, above all, the most vulnerable populations. Women and girls have been particularly exposed to the consequences of the crisis with an upsurge in gender violence, school drop-out, difficulties accessing sexual and reproductive health services, job losses and poverty.

At the same time, and this is a paradox, the health crisis has highlighted some feminised careers which play an essential role in our society but which are undervalued, such as care personnel in old people’s homes and in retailing and distribution or again, home helps. The European recovery plan and all post-COVID plans must take into account these inequalities.

“I am convinced that the success of this new (EU-Africa) strategy will be dependent upon the successful empowerment of African women and girls”

Recovery can be an opportunity to place gender equality back at the heart of the EU’s priorities, starting with promoting the role of women and girls in the economic recovery and by creating a social model that will protect them. I have always argued for gender equality: throughout my career as a gynaecologist and surgeon, through an association I established and a campaign to raise awareness of endometriosis, and today through my mandate as an MEP.

When I was appointed as the European Parliament’s rapporteur for the new EU-Africa strategy, I wanted to stress the decisive leadership role of women and girls. To prepare that report, I undertook a long consultation process, with nearly 200 people in eight African countries. I wanted to present a report inspired by both the land and its actors, such as heads of states, institutions, the private sector, but above all African civil society.

I met women and girls who were arguing for women’s entrepreneurship, for access to sexual and reproductive rights, for their inclusion in the digital and technology world and for their political participation. They are all fighting for the creation of a genuinely inclusive and egalitarian society.

During the course of all those exchanges, I was able to see how determined African women are to have an impact on the world. They embody that energy characteristic of the African continent. Their unfailing optimism and their desire to bring change and progress moved me deeply. In Ethiopia, for example, I met women who are fighting for their economic empowerment.

In an association (WISE) they are promoting women’s entrepreneurship. They start from nothing and become true entrepreneurs. They create jobs and allow other women to also escape poverty. After seeing countless success stories of the African continent, I am convinced that the new EU-Africa strategy must support African women; whether by access to health and education, entrepreneurship and participation in decision-making, or by combating discrimination and violence. I am convinced that the success of this new strategy will be dependent upon the successful empowerment of African women and girls. It is still a very long road and our action will, therefore, have to be intensified over the coming years. We need specific objectives, precise calendars and clear criteria to evaluate our progress.

I am pleading for the preparation of a joint roadmap for our two continents on the objectives to be achieved regarding women’s rights. The implementation, in particular, of international commitments and instruments is crucial. Continued monitoring and evaluation are required to ensure we don’t slacken the pace, particularly within the context of the post-COVID relaunch but also in the face of the consequences of climate change, women and girls must not be overlooked.

“European Week of Action for Girls was a great opportunity... and I was very honoured to take part in it. Let’s build bridges between African and European women. Long live the sisterhood”

We must ensure that there are no backward steps and that their specific vulnerabilities are fully taken into account. Progress on issues such as the level of schooling of girls, the number of female MPs and ministers, the number of women studying in the STEM sectors, the number of women involved in peace processes, the rate of women’s entrepreneurship, the level of access to sexual education and to sexual and reproductive health services, must, be measured and better communicated.

Finally, the role of Europe with regard to gender equality must be more visible for African and European female citizens. This new strategy must promote gender equality and will have to bring the citizens of both continents together to carry out joint projects and build bridges between African and European women.

European Week of Action for Girls was a great opportunity in this sense, and I was very honoured to  take part in it. Let’s build bridges between African and European women. Long live the sisterhood.