Ministers Wilmès and Kitir reaffirm Belgium’s commitment to gender equality and the rights of women and girls

March 8 is International Women's Day. Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sophie Wilmès and Minister of Development Cooperation and Major Cities Policy Meryame Kitir emphasize that the promotion and protection of women's rights is and will remain a priority of Belgium's foreign policy and development cooperation: "Achieving gender equality worldwide is one of the greatest challenges we face," Minister Wilmès said a few days ago before the Human Rights Council. "In our contacts with our partners around the world, we see that women often make the difference. They are synonymous with empathy and solidarity and therefore make good decisions", according to Minister Kitir.

In recent years, there has been growing organized opposition to the gender equality agenda in multilateral fora, from conservative circles that are increasingly questioning the gender equality "acquis". The importance of the "family" (narrowly defined as a married heterosexual couple) and the role of women in it are being emphasized, and certain concepts are being targeted with emphasis, such as sexual and reproductive health and rights, comprehensive sex education, and even the concept of gender equality itself.

Belgian diplomacy and development cooperation remain active on this theme and are internationally recognized as strong advocates for the rights of women and girls, the fight against gender-based discrimination and violence and as supporters of an important role for civil society. There can be no gender equality if sexual and reproductive rights are not guaranteed, including access to sexual and reproductive health information and services. This access must be understood in a broad sense and must be ensured throughout life. Women and girls must also be able to choose their own role in society and not be restricted to the family or private sphere.

Our country regularly raises these issues with other countries, in bilateral meetings, within the framework of the European Union and in regional and multilateral forums such as the United Nations and the Council of Europe. As every year, Belgium will participate in the Commission on the Status of Women, which begins its 65th session on 15 March. Minister Wilmès will lead the Belgian delegation at this virtual session, which focuses on strengthening women's participation in decision-making.

In order to sustain and strengthen Belgium's commitment, our country will also participate in the Generation Equality Forum, organized by UN Women on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the World Conference on Women in Beijing. During this forum, various partners (civil society, governments, private sector, cities, parliaments, etc.) will jointly undertake concrete actions within the framework of six action coalitions for gender equality. Belgium will focus on action coalitions on gender-based violence and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Belgian Development Cooperation finances multilateral organizations that aim to promote gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights. As such, Belgium finances, through core contributions, UN WOMEN with 4 million euros per year and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) with 9 million euros per year. In addition, a call for projects "gender-based violence and COVID-19" was launched in the summer of 2020, focusing on mitigating the effects of COVID-19 on populations through support for the fight against gender-based violence, particularly against women and girls. In the course of this year 2021, a new "Gender" call for 5 million euros will be launched to finance projects with the main objective of achieving gender equality (SDG 5).

Gender equality is a structural and cross-cutting issue. Social protection, climate, the fight against gender-based violence, sexual and reproductive health and rights, transformative masculinities, leadership and female participation are all priority areas of action set by Minister Kitir for Belgium's development cooperation action, in which she wishes to actively promote gender mainstreaming.

The COVID-19 pandemic has a particularly negative impact on the human rights of women and girls. It has exacerbated existing inequalities and has hit the most vulnerable groups, including women and girls, hard. Containment measures have led to an increase in gender-based violence. This crisis has highlighted the fact that 70% of the world's health and social workers are women and that they are often paid less and less taken into account. From a health perspective, the effect of confinement has been to restrict access to sexual and reproductive health services that can lead to higher rates of maternal mortality and morbidity, teenage pregnancy, and HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. In addition, at the employment level in low- and middle-income countries, women, who make up the majority of workers in the informal sector, are more likely to be laid off or lose their jobs. In view of this dramatic situation, the Belgian development cooperation also integrates the response to COVID-19 in its action.

Gender equality is also a challenge within the FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation. Despite widespread awareness and the implementation of targeted measures in recent years, women remain under-represented, including in higher grades and functions. On 8 March, Minister Wilmès will have an exchange with the staff of the FPS, which is part of a series of actions aimed at better understanding the issue and targeting the challenges concerning the place of women in the Belgian diplomacy, including in leadership and management positions. Gender equality must be one of the guiding principles of our management policy with collective awareness and change of certain reflexes as objectives.

On the occasion of this International Women's Day, the FPS Foreign Affairs, Foreign Trade and Development Cooperation and the entire Belgian diplomatic network abroad are mobilizing around the theme #ChooseToChallenge to call out gender prejudices and gender inequality. You can follow our messages and actions on social networks with the hashtag #ChooseToChallenge.