The European Union must strengthen its role as a global champion for girls, supporting their right to decide about their own lives and creating a world in which they can actively participate and thrive.
This was the message from the 'Girls Speak Out' event at the European Parliament, which was organised by a coalition of civil society groups and held under the patronage of Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
Now in its seventh year, EWAG 2019 focused on girls’ right to education, economic empowerment, participation in decision- making and combatting violence against girls and young women.
Opening the event, S&D Group leader Iratxe García Pérez said she was proud to say that her political group in the European Parliament, the Socialists, have been supporting EWAG from the very beginning.
“Gender equality and girls’ and women’s rights are one of our priorities as a political group. Now is an opportunity for the European Union and the European Parliament in particular, to take a fi rm stand for girls and young women around the world.”
García Pérez went on to say that the European Union needs a comprehensive approach to gender equality.
“We have asked the President of the European Commission to present a gender strategy to address discrimination against women and girls to promote their empowerment and to fight against gender-based violence – not only in the European Union, but also in the rest of the world.”
“Through external action and cooperation policies, we can ensure that special attention is given to the specific needs of girls and young women.”
Alongside García Pérez on the panel were a number of youth advocates, who each took the floor to speak out on the issues affecting girls and young women and outline what matters most to them.
Kicking off the first session on political participation and economic empowerment, Laura, a 19-year-old from Ireland, said that as a student advocate and young female voice, she wants there to be a sustainable plan to change the outcomes for girls worldwide - for them to be the voice and not the victim.
"We are tomorrow’s adults, policymakers and world leaders. We are capable, passionate and driven to make the change we wish to see in the world" Laura from Ireland
“We are tomorrow’s adults, policymakers and world leaders. We are capable, passionate and driven to make the change we wish to see in the world. We must be proactive in identifying and solving the problems limiting girls and young women worldwide.”
She said that without the cooperation of influential people, she and her fellow youth advocates lack the support they need, adding, “we are only as strong as we are united, as weak as we are divided.”
Another youth advocate, Maja from Sweden, said “I’m a Swedish girl – I dare to talk, but in many countries girls do not dare to talk.”
She explained that in many cultures girls are not taught to be leaders, adding, “we need to support young girls and make it safe for them to be involved in decision-making.”
She underlined the importance of role models for girls and young women, saying “to be it, you need to see it.”
Though the youth advocates were the protagonists in the event, a group of newly-elected MEPs were on hand to respond to the issues raised.
Anna Donáth, a Renew Europe deputy from Hungary, was one of the MEPs listening to the young women’s perspectives on what is needed globally to ensure that girls’ rights are respected and protected.
She said that as things stand, “I am living in a society where we are going backwards and not forwards; where a woman’s place is in the kitchen and the government is promoting the idea that our only job is to give birth.”
"I can tell you from inside the Parliament, how many times we have to argue about our legitimacy to be here" Manon Aubry MEP
She praised the youth advocates and told them that what they were doing was really important, adding, “you mentioned that there are places where girls are not allowed to raise their voices, but right now in Europe we are facing more and more societies that are deciding to go backwards. So even in Europe we have a lot to do.”
Evin Incir, an S&D MEP from Sweden, said that she had had the honour of meeting the American civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson in the United States recently and that something he had said had resonated with her.
“He was asked how to deal with the current situation in the US but also globally, when it comes to minorities – and I think this could apply to gender equality too – his answer was ‘an organised minority is a political majority’”.
“That stuck in my head because if we don’t organise, we will not be able to become the majority that is needed in order to push through the policies that we want.”
“Look at the far-right movements or the climate change-deniers, who are against gender equality; we see the attacks on the right to our own bodies with abortion laws, even in Europe.”
Incir said that a holistic view is needed when addressing gender inequality. “Democratic rights, political rights, economic rights and human rights – it’s about addressing structural discrimination against women.”
GUE/NGL co-president Manon Aubry was next to take the floor and spoke of her experience as a young female MEP and youngest ever chair of her group.
“I have so many daily anecdotes of people looking at me like I’m an assistant. When you come here and you’re young, you’re a woman, coming from the civil society and NGO world, well it’s like you don’t deserve your seat.”
“You have to wear a suit and be old and have been around for a while. I think it’s very important that we girls speak out. I can tell you from inside the Parliament, how many times we [young women] have to argue about our legitimacy to be here.”
"The use of rape as a weapon in conflict is actually increasing in 2019 in some parts of the world" David Lega MEP
Danish deputy Kira Peter-Hanson, Parliament’s youngest ever MEP, raised a laugh with the panel and audience when she said that at 21 years old, she was younger than her own intern.
“I think it’s important to remember that not everyone can speak out, but if you have the possibility to speak out, you also have a responsibility.”
She said that in terms of concrete policy at EU level it was important to look at abortion rights and push forward legislation securing girls’ and women’s rights to their own bodies.
She added, “When it comes to the labour market we need to look at maternity leave and the different issues contributing to the gender pay gap.”
Saskia Bricmont, Greens MEP from Belgium and co-chair of the Children’s Rights Intergroup, said she was delighted to be invited to the event as it gave her and her fellow MEPs the opportunity to speak, but also to listen and to commit.
“I think that women - not only at the political level, but at all levels - need to work together.” Bricmont said that some of the issues her Intergroup was focusing on was ending child labour and the detention of children.
“All kinds of detention, but with a special focus on girls because they face specific problems of violence and sexual harassment, when it comes to migration camps, for example.”
“We really have to focus on the interests of children and girls in policy decision-making. We have to gender-mainstream women’s rights but also children’s rights.”
"In too many countries around the world, social and cultural norms still exist that reinforce gender stereotypes, preventing girls from attending school" Peace from Uganda
In a second session focusing on education and fighting violence, another youth advocate, Peace, a 21-year-old campaigner from Uganda, highlighted that 130 million girls worldwide are not in school and that 15 million girls have never even been to school.
“In too many countries around the world, social and cultural norms still exist that reinforce gender stereotypes, preventing girls from attending school, creating a negative cycle that strengthens gender inequality.”
She gave the example of Uganda, where some rural communities prefer that boys attend school and that girls stay at home to carry out domestic work.
As the only male MEP speaking at the event, David Lega, a Swedish EPP deputy and co-chair of the Children’s Intergroup, said that awareness needed to be raised “in every way possible” about the disproportionate exposure of girls to physical, sexual and psychological violence.
“We also know that these numbers are higher in conflict-ridden areas; the figures are staggering. The use of rape as a weapon in conflict is actually increasing in 2019 in some parts of the world. Undoubtedly the damage and distress it causes families makes it incomprehensibly cruel.”
Lega said that action needed to be taken to end the use of rape as a weapon of war and bring those responsible to justice.
He said that researchers all over the world agree that the best way to increase gender equality and the status of girls is through education.
“It goes without saying that access to education is crucial for girls to reach their full potential. In some cases, access to school can even be life-saving as it physically provides them with a safe space and this, in turn, reduces the risk of them ending up in the hands of traffickers.”
“It is important to ensure that children in emergency and crisis situations have access to education - not only to provide safety, but to provide these children with a future.”