Thirty years ago, there was a young African girl who would lock herself away in a room and read for hours and hours until the lights went out. She was fascinated by facts and stories and characters and places.
She had carved out a future, full of hopes and ambitions in her mind. A dream of a job and a career. Yet democratic instability, and the fact that she was born a girl, threatened that future. That girl was me.
I have lived a life full of opportunity, which I have gladly grasped and worked hard to optimise, but I know what the other side of life looks like.
In your younger years you have little comprehension of the limitations gender has potentially placed upon you. That reality slowly creeps up on you as the years tick by.
I strongly believe that it is the EU’s job to help advocate for women’s rights around the world, and that it can be a great engine for change in this area. I also believe the equality we enjoy here in Europe means less if others live in fear or oppression elsewhere.
While in theory women can now vote in all countries, and more than 90 percent of girls finish primary school, scratch beneath the surface and a different reality exists.
“In your younger years you have little comprehension of the limitations gender has potentially placed upon you. That reality slowly creeps up on you as the years tick by”
There remains a chronic lack of access to education, healthcare, financial independence and political agency. Gender bias and inequality is often veiled by legal equality. Social norms, traditions and practices often outweigh the progress offered by a legal text.
For example, the lack of gender segregation at polling stations in Pakistan means women can be barred from voting by their husbands and village elders.
In the 2016 Uganda elections, violence against women at voting stations led to control centres being established to monitor the situation.
In Kenya, conflict means women are discouraged from walking the long distances to voting centers due to threats to their safety. For some women they simply do not exist within the system, because they were never declared upon birth.
I have long believed that economic empowerment is the silver bullet for ending gender inequality. My own mother did not have the power to say no when I was taken to undergo Female Genital Mutilation or when she had to cope with polygamy.
It was not only a consequence of religious domination but above all a consequence of not having her own money. Economic independence is freedom to decide.
“There cannot be true equality if all women don’t have their right to be a part of decisions being made in banks, boardrooms, laboratories and factories”
The facts and figures clearly show that without economic equality, there cannot be gender equality.
Over 2.7 billion women are still legally restricted from having the same access to jobs as men.
Fifty-nine world economies have no laws on sexual harassment in the workplace. In 18 economies, husbands can legally prevent their wives from working. The gender wage gap worldwide is estimated to be 23 percent, and women are less likely than men to have access to a bank account.
Without a broader framework of economic empowerment for women, the global quest for true equality will continue to fall short. There cannot be true equality if all women don’t have their right to be a part of decisions being made in banks, boardrooms, laboratories and factories.
What can we actually do? We need to pursue policies that focus on increasing female participation in business and and trade. Women need more than the right to vote; they need to be able to decide what happens with the resources of their country and their community.
They need access to decent work and decent wages. This in turn will lead to control over who they marry and what they do with their bodies. We need as many women running villages and businesses as running households.
“Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, performance and economic diversification for all. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management roles score higher in all areas of performance”
Money talks, and as such we need to far better promote and educate people on the fact that women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, performance and economic diversification for all. It is estimated that companies with three or more women in senior management roles score higher in all areas of performance.
Western governments and international institutions need to move away from a model of direct government aid and work towards increasing the amount of partnership programs for education, training, skills sharing and community-based work.
The EU should strengthen its private and public partnerships to encourage international companies to give more opportunities to more women. Case studies show that having female leaders is an important mechanism in helping to develop other female talent within a company.
Businesses can also promote gender equality through their relationships with suppliers. There are many good examples of programs around the world that aim to work with supply chains, that actively seek to improve working conditions for their employees, provide social and employment rights, and offer training and mentoring for women in non-traditional roles.
We should reward these companies and suppliers with our business and our trade.
The catchphrase for the UN’s 2030 Agenda is that sustainable development around the world should “leave no one behind.” However, if progress limps on at this speed, by 2030, there will be plenty of people still left behind, and the majority will be women.
“Those rights can be erased just as quickly as they appeared, if we do not fight to keep them. For too many women around the world, those rights aren’t there to lose”
Acceptance of the status quo, or the belief that some parts of the world are a lost cause, is simply unacceptable.
Equality for men and women has been a long and complicated journey. Women holding legal rights and economic independence is just a moment in our long and complicated history of the world.
Those rights can be erased just as quickly as they appeared, if we do not fight to keep them. For too many women around the world, those rights aren’t there to lose.
The EU should make full use of its diplomatic and economic weight to give women everywhere the chance to shape a future of their own choosing.
Such a goal can only ever make us stronger and more prosperous, freer and fairer.