“Girl-Friendly Spaces” funded by the European Commission, like this one at a school in Somalia, provide girls with an opportunity to mingle and learn in a safe environment. Photo by: European Commission

For as long as society has existed, women have excelled as workers and breadwinners, as mothers and homemakers, as development drivers and peace-builders, as leaders.

And yet still today, in our 21st-century world, they are held back by poverty, discrimination and lack of opportunity.

Isn’t it time, then, that we woke up once and for all to the fact that, in preventing women from fulfilling their potential, we are holding back our own development and progress?

The “She Builds” campaign — with its launch, appropriately enough, on International Women’s Day — should do a wonderful job in highlighting women’s multiple contributions to society. It will focus on their central roles in building communities, economies, innovations and the future. We welcome it, because it very much echoes our own understanding of gender equality and women’s empowerment as key to development.

Moreover, it shows that, from a development perspective, furthering gender equality and women’s empowerment is about seeing the whole picture and demonstrating that specific actions are just one piece in a far bigger puzzle. Indeed, investing in women and girls in every sector of society pays dividends and is therefore the only way forward.

European development policy in action

When given the chance, women and girls contribute hugely to a society’s growth and development. It follows, therefore, that their equality and empowerment will only really come when they are allowed to fulfil their potential in every walk of life. Accordingly, our Agenda for Change — the blueprint that will see us pursue a new higher-impact, results-oriented development policy — has pinpointed gender equality and women’s empowerment as a priority area for EU action.  

As one of the world’s largest donors, the European Union has already been playing a crucial role in improving the lives of women and girls. Since 2004, for example, thanks to EU support, more than 85,000 new female students have been enrolled in secondary education, more than 4 million births have been attended by health personnel and 10.8 million consultations on reproductive health have been carried out.

And we will continue to focus on women and girls in everything we do.

Take education, for instance. Women who spend more years in education have better maternal health, better nourished and better educated children, and better job prospects. This confirms what the old African proverb says: “Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.”

In Somalia, where fewer children attend school than almost anywhere else in the world, the EU is working to raise the quality of education and get more children, especially girls, into school. A lack of basic, dedicated on-site facilities has kept many girls away from secondary schools in particular. To rectify this, in 2008 the EU put funding into five “Girl-Friendly Spaces,” offering girls a common room of their own — where they can socialize with their female friends, study and pray in safety and privacy — plus separate toilets and wash facilities.

Meanwhile, Shumi Akhter’s compelling story shows just how important education is in transforming the lives and fortunes of young women. As a teenager living in Bangladesh, Shumi had to fight against her parents to carry on going to school. Aged 13, she opposed plans for an arranged marriage between her and her cousin. Her mother supported her and the Commission-funded Kishori Abhijan Empowerment of Adolescents project supported them both during this difficult time. Thanks to the project, Shumi learned about issues such as child rights and HIV/AIDS. More importantly, the project confirmed her belief that no one should be able to force decisions on her.

Education is just the start. The fact is that no society can hope to prosper or develop sustainably unless women are playing a full part in it. There is much evidence that proves that when women earn a living, they reinvest 90 percent of it into their families (for men the figure is closer to just 30 or 40 percent). Consequently, there is less poverty, economies flourish and societies are more peaceful. And in rural areas of the developing world in particular, women have long been the backbone of economic life.

So, for example, via its Food Facility, the European Union has supported at least 20,000 smallholders living on or below the poverty line in 60 villages in the Shinyanga region of Tanzania, with a view to boosting their agricultural productivity and incomes. Half of these smallholders are women.

And in the Aceh region of Indonesia, thanks to a Commission-funded livelihood program run by an Italian nongovernmental organization, thousands of former female soldiers sidelined by the peace process have been able to get business startup packages and link up with local microfinance institutions. Other livelihood projects available include training courses for the police, with an emphasis on community policing and human rights. All in all, then, these women are making a new start and at the same time playing a full part in their region’s economic stabilization and recovery.

The EU’s gender action plan

Through our Agenda for Change, we want to build on projects such as these so that we gender mainstream all EU development policies and programs. To achieve this ambition, we’ve devised a roadmap — the EU gender action plan.

The 2010-2015 EU Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Development, to give it its full title, proposes a set of actions through which EU institutions and member states should raise awareness among their staff at home and in partner countries about mainstreaming gender equality issues in development cooperation. We cannot make gender equality happen simply by waving a magic wand. Only with the appropriate training will staff at the EU institutions and in member states be able to integrate it into all their cooperation activities, and in doing so make sure that women and girls’ rights are upheld and that our investments are effective as well. The action plan provides the building blocks to make this happen — along with all-important indicators to make it easier to chart progress and assess results.

Unfinished MDG business

The action plan is having a real and lasting impact on the way in which we include the gender perspective in EU development cooperation. Our new development policy cannot claim to have been a true success unless it delivers real and tangible results in empowering women and making gender equality a reality.

That is because gender equality and women’s rights are key to addressing the “unfinished business” of the Millennium Development Goals and to accelerating global development beyond 2015. It is perhaps no coincidence that the goals where progress is most lacking relate directly to women and children. This is unacceptable and the European Union will continue pursuing these and all the other MDGs with the same energy and focus as ever. Our billion-euro MDG initiative, targeting the most off-track goals in countries that have fallen behind, is ample proof of this.

And we continue to work successfully with partners to make a real difference to women’s lives. For instance, the EU is proud to be a key partner in the United Nations-led “Every Woman, Every Child” health initiative, bringing together governments, multilateral organizations, the private sector and civil society behind unprecedented global efforts to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015.

Looking beyond 2015 and the MDGs towards a future global development framework, it is abundantly clear to us that a central challenge of governance will be to achieve gender equality. If women are freed from the shackles of violence, vulnerability and poverty, and if they are afforded access to and control over productive assets, education, justice, family planning and health care services, households can prosper — and society with them. So we will continue to promote women and girls as catalysts for change, to promote their equal participation and representation in decision-making processes at all levels and to help eliminate all forms of discrimination against them.

Equality at home

Although the post-2015 framework is definitely ambitious, we do not see it as being the end of the story. It will actually be a means towards delivering a decent life for all people, wherever they live. We must practice what we preach. So our work to champion equality for all starts at home. We want everyone — men and women — to find the right work-life balance for them, so that they can put their talents to good use in their private lives and working careers. This means giving all people the opportunity to have a fulfilling home life and a fair working environment in which they can contribute their unique potential to shared aims, do their best, be at their most productive and be judged solely on their merits.

The European Union will not let up in its push for gender equality and women’s empowerment, because they are political, moral and economic imperatives. They are imperatives that reflect values of fairness and equity on which the EU itself is built. And most importantly of all, they are imperatives whose ultimate aim lies in improving the lives of everyone in society.

No one — woman, man or child — should be left behind.

Want to learn more? Check out She Builds and tweet us using #SheBuilds.

She Builds is a month-long conversation hosted by Devex in partnership with Chemonics, Creative Associates, JBS International, the Millennium Challenge Corp., United Nations Office for Project Services and U.K. Department for International Development.

About the author

  • Fernando Frutuoso de Melo

    Fernando Frutuoso de Melo was appointed director general of the European Commission's EuropeAid in July 2013, taking up his new functions in November. With the Commission since 1987, he has considerable experience in development, human resources, inter-institutional relations and fisheries issues. He previously served as deputy director general of the human resources department, as well as in the private offices of EU Commissioner Olli Rehn and Commission President Barroso.