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Putting women and girls’ rights at the heart of the global recovery for a gender-equal world

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European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy put forward ambitious plans to promote gender equality and women’s empowerment through all external action of the European Union.

While there has been some significant but uneven progress achieved in advancing women’s and girls’ rights, no country in the world is on track to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls by 2030. Moreover, the health and socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 crisis are disproportionately affecting women and girls. For example, because a higher proportion of women work informally and in vulnerable sectors, their job loss rate is 1.8 times greater than that of men. The poverty rate among women could go up by 9.1%.

To address this, the EU’s new Action Plan on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in External Action 2021–2025 (GAP III) aims to accelerate progress on empowering women and girls, and safeguard gains made on gender equality during the 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and its Platform for Action.

High Representative/Vice-President, Josep Borrell, said: “Ensuring the same rights to all empowers our societies. It makes them richer and more secure. It is a fact that goes beyond principles or moral duties. The participation and leadership of women and girls is essential for democracy, justice, peace, security, prosperity and a greener planet. With this new Gender Action Plan, we are pushing for more and faster progress towards gender equality.”

Commissioner for International Partnerships, Jutta Urpilainen, said: “Stronger engagement on gender equality is key to a sustainable global recovery from the COVID-19 crisis and building fairer, more inclusive, more prosperous societies. Women and girls are in the frontline of the pandemic and must be put in the driving seat of the recovery. As a gender-sensitive and responsive geopolitical Commission, we want to work more closely with our Member States, as well as all partners, in building a truly gender-equal world.

Promoting gender equality in EU external action 2021-2025

The Gender Action Plan III provides the EU with a policy framework with five pillars of action for accelerating progress towards meeting international commitments and a world in which everyone has space to thrive. It makes the promotion of gender equality a priority of all external policies and actions; offers a roadmap for working together with stakeholders at national, regional and multilateral levels; steps up action in strategic thematic areas; calls for the institutions to lead by example, and; ensures the transparency of the results.

The five pillars of action in detail:

   1) 85% of all new actions throughout external relations will contribute to gender equality and women’s empowerment by 2025. GAP III introduces stringent rules for applying and monitoring gender mainstreaming across sectors. All external assistance across all sectors, including infrastructure, digital, energy, agriculture and blended funds, etc., should integrate a gender perspective and support gender equality.

   2) Shared strategic vision and close cooperation with Member States and partners at multilateral, regional and country level. GAP III makes the case for developing a common approach for all EU actors at country-level and for focusing on selected strategic issues. Careful gender analysis and close consultation with Member States, civil society organisations, women’s rights activists, and the youth, will provide a firm foundation for actions on the ground.

   3) GAP III calls for accelerating progress, focusing on the key thematic areas of engagement, including fighting against gender-based violence and promoting the economic, social and political empowerment of women and girls. It puts a renewed emphasis on universal access to healthcare, sexual and reproductive health and rights, and gender equality in education, as well as on promoting equal participation and leadership. It also fully integrates the EU policy framework on Women, Peace and Security, and brings the gender perspective to new policy areas, such as the green transition and the digital transformation.

   4) Leading by example. The action plan calls for the European Union to lead by example, including by establishing gender-responsive and gender-balanced leadership at top political and management levels.

   5) Measuring results. GAP III adopts a new approach to monitoring, evaluation and learning, with a stronger focus on measuring results. The EU will set up a quantitative, qualitative and inclusive monitoring system to increase public accountability, ensure transparency and access to information on its assistance to gender equality worldwide. The Commission, in cooperation with the EEAS, will monitor progress each year on the implementation of GAP III.

A transformative approach

Contributing to empowering women, girls and young people to fully use their rights and increase their participation in political, economic, social, and cultural life is a key objective of the new action plan. GAP III strongly supports the participation and leadership of girls and women, promoting it, for example, through governance programmes and public administration reforms.

GAP III will promote a transformative and intersectional approach, and will mainstream gender in all policies and actions. It aims to address structural causes of gender inequality and gender-based discrimination, including by actively engaging men and boys in challenging gender norms and stereotypes. Finally, to leave no one behind, the action plan seeks to tackle all intersecting dimensions of discrimination, paying specific attention for example to women with disabilities, migrant women, and discrimination based on age or sexual orientation.

Background

This external Gender Action Plan reflects the objectives of the EU Gender Equality Strategy, the first Commission strategy in the area of equality, which delivers on the commitments made by the President von der Leyen in her political guidelines.

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Human Rights

UNICEF: Closing schools should be ‘measure of last resort’

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Teachers and students wear face masks and maintain physical distance at a school in Cambodia. © UNICEF/Chansereypich Seng

The head of the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) underscored on Tuesday that “no effort should be spared” to keep children in school, as the coronavirus pandemic continues into a second year. 

“Despite overwhelming evidence of the impact of school closures on children, and despite increasing evidence that schools are not drivers of the pandemic, too many countries have opted to keep schools closed, some for nearly a year”, Henrietta Fore said in a statement

A high cost 

The UNICEF chief highlighted that the cost of closing schools has been devastating, with 90 per cent of students globally facing shutdowns at the peak of the COVID disruptions last year, leaving more than a third of schoolchildren with no access to remote education. 

“The number of out-of-school children is set to increase by 24 million, to a level we have not seen in years and have fought so hard to overcome”, she said. 

“Children’s ability to read, write and do basic math has suffered, and the skills they need to thrive in the 21st century economy have diminished”, Ms. Fore added. 

Closure a ‘last resort’ 

Keeping children at home puts their health, development, safety and well-being at risk – with the most vulnerable bearing the heaviest brunt, she said. 

She pointed out that without school meals, children are “left hungry and their nutrition is worsening”; without daily peer interactions and less mobility, they are “losing physical fitness and showing signs of mental distress”; and without the safety net that school often provides, they are “more vulnerable to abuse, child marriage and child labour”. 

“That’s why closing schools must be a measure of last resort, after all other options have been considered”, stressed the top UNICEF official. 

Evaluating local transmission 

Assessing transmission risks at the local level should be “a key determinant” in decisions on school operations, Ms. Fore said. 

She also flagged that nationwide school closures be avoided, whenever possible. 

“Where there are high levels of community transmission, where health systems are under extreme pressure and where closing schools is deemed inevitable, safeguarding measures must be put in place”, maintained the UNICEF chief. 

Moreover, it is important that children who are at risk of violence in their homes, who are reliant upon school meals and whose parents are essential workers, continue their education in classrooms. 

After lockdown restrictions are lifted, she said that schools must be among the first to reopen and catch-up classes should be prioritized to keep children who were unable to learn remotely from being left behind. 

“If children are faced with another year of school closures, the effects will be felt for generations to come”, said Ms. Fore.

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Humanitarians seek $1.3 billion to help millions in war-weary Afghanistan

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The UN and humanitarian partners in Afghanistan are seeking $1.3 billion to assist almost 16 million people in need of life-saving assistance as a result of decades of conflict, recurrent natural disasters, and the added impact of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic. 

The number of people targeted for assistance is over a six-fold increase compared to four years ago, when 2.3 million people were targeted for assistance, according to Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the UN Secretary-General. 

The situation of children is particularly worrying. 

“It is projected that nearly one in two children under the age of five will face acute malnutrition this year,” Mr. Dujarric said on Monday. 

Hunger is “soaring” as people have lost their livelihoods, he added, noting that in 2021, nearly half of Afghanistan’s population will need humanitarian assistance to survive. 

People ‘increasingly desperate’ 

According to the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), across Afghanistan, about 18.4 million people are in need of assistance, a number that rose sharply last year with the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“While enduringly resilient, people are increasingly desperate, resorting to debt and other more dangerous coping mechanisms to survive including marrying off their young daughters and sending their children to work,” Parvathy Ramaswami, Humanitarian Coordinator a.i. for Afghanistan, said in the foreword to a humanitarian response plan

The survival of the 15.7 million most vulnerable depends on humanitarians operating there receiving sufficient financial resources to deliver a response, she noted, adding that “the consequences of late or inadequate funding are very real.” 

The outlook for 2021 has worsened further due to significant unmet needs last year due to funding shortfalls and the acute focus on COVID-19, as well as the slow rollout of complementary development assistance, the response plan noted. 

‘Exhausted and hungry for peace’ 

Ms. Ramaswami went on to note that in spite of the bleak situation, there is “still cause for hope” with the start of the intra-Afghan negotiations.  

“After enduring decades of war, people are mentally exhausted and hungry for peace, yearning for an end to civilian deaths and suffering.” 

She also highlighted the need for a permanent ceasefire or a persistent reduction in violence, to allow humanitarians to assess the situation, especially in the hard to reach areas.  

“Until this much hoped for peace becomes a reality, the humanitarian community stands beside the people of Afghanistan during what surely must be one of the country’s difficult periods,” the UN official added, stressing “we all must do more, stretch higher, and do better to deliver life-saving assistance to those who need it most.” 

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Close ‘disgraceful’ Guantánamo camp

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Barbed wire fencing surrounds a detention centre. Unsplash/Hédi Benyounes

Exactly 19 years after the Guantánamo Bay detention centre first opened, UN independent human rights experts on Monday urged the incoming United States administration of Joe Biden, to close the notorious military prison as soon as possible. 

Citing the rapidly deteriorating health of detainees who remain, along with the mental and physical harm inflicted on them in cruel and inhuman conditions, eight right experts warned that the aging inmates are at increasing risk. 

“Guantánamo is a place of arbitrariness and abuse, a site where torture and ill-treatment was rampant and remains institutionalized, where the rule of law is effectively suspended, and where justice is denied”, the experts said on the 19th anniversary of its establishment, on 11 January 2002. 

Moreover, they pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic is further exacerbating health vulnerabilities for the increasingly elderly prison population. 

“The very existence of this facility is a disgrace for the United States and the international community as a whole”, the UN experts said. “Guantánamo should have been closed a long time ago”. 

Living in ‘legal limbo’ 

In 2003, the facility held 700 prisoners. Nineteen years later, 40 detainees remain with only nine having been charged with, or convicted, of crimes.  

UN experts have consistently demanded the dismissal of the Military Commissions and the closing of the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, saying they are incompatible with the US’ obligations under international law.  

“We must not forget these detainees, who have been subjected to torture or victims of comparable trauma, and still languish in Guantánamo, in a virtual legal limbo, outside the reach of the constitutional judicial system of the United States”, they said. 

“The prolonged and indefinite detention of individuals, who have not been convicted of any crime by a competent and independent judicial authority operating under due process of law, is arbitrary and constitutes a form of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or even torture”. 

Even those cleared remain imprisoned 

Military Commissions are still undergoing pre-trial proceedings on motions to suppress evidence resulting from torture, according to the experts.  

And as fresh trials are not expected to commence anytime soon, proceedings are likely to last several years, leaving the defendants incarcerated indefinitely.  

While six of the inmates had long been cleared for transfer and one more recently for release, all remain behind bars. “The Military Commissions violate the requirements of impartiality, independence and non-discrimination and should never have been used in the manner in which they were deployed at Guantánamo”, said the independent experts.  

“These individuals should receive a fair and public hearing by competent, independent and impartial civilian court previously established by law”, they added. 

Uphold legal responsibilities 

The experts said the US must uphold its international legal obligations, conduct prompt and impartial investigations of alleged human rights violations and provide redress and rehabilitation to those who have endured prolonged arbitrary detention or any form of torture or ill-treatment.  

“With a new administration coming into office in the United States and as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, Guantánamo must finally be closed forever”, they spelled out.  

The Special Rapporteurs appealed to the US authorities to “prosecute, in full compliance with human rights law, the individuals held at Guantánamo Bay or, alternatively, immediately release or repatriate them while respecting the principle of non-refoulement”. 

About the experts 

Special Rapporteurs and independent experts are appointed by the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or a country situation. Their positions are honorary and they are not paid for their work. 

Click here for the names of experts. 

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