5 years of SheDecides: because women's rights are fundamental human rights

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She Decides group photo

The enthusiastic participants and champions at the SheDecides+5 conference in Brussels. In the middle, Prime Minister De Croo. © SPF AE/FOD BZ

2017, Global Gag Rule

Let's go back in time 5 years. US President Donald Trump wants to apply the Global Gag Rule around the world. This means that organisations receiving US funding are no longer allowed to engage in activities that have anything to do with abortion.

A disaster approaches. For example, a health centre in Benin that uses US funds for malaria vaccination and Dutch funds for family planning will see its funding from the US dry up. After all, it provides advice on birth control, contraception and safe abortion. As a result, the centre will have to significantly scale back its operations or even close its doors.

For many development organisations, the US is one of the most important donors. Thus, the Global Gag Rule will greatly increase the number of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, diseases and deaths.

An unacceptable situation, according to Dutch Minister of Development Cooperation Lilianne Ploumen. In January 2017, she proposes the creation of the international platform SheDecides. This could raise funds and bring together countries and organisations with the same vision for family planning and women's rights.

The Belgian Minister for Development Cooperation Alexander De Croo gave her his immediate support. On 2 March 2017, the Netherlands and Belgium, along with Denmark and Sweden, organise a conference at the Egmont Palace in Brussels in support of the rights of women and girls. In just the first day, 181 million euros are raised. The SheDecides movement is definitely getting off the ground.

SheDecides initiative at Egmont Palace

Minister Alexander De Croo launches the SheDecides initiative at the Egmont Palace in Brussels in 2017. Next to him Minister Ploumen. © SPF AE/FOD BZ

2022, SheDecides+5


5 years later, SheDecides has grown into a solid, global movement. And that is something to be celebrated! This is why Belgium, along with SheDecides, organised a high-level conference at the same Egmont Palace. One of the aims was to have a robust exchange of views and to move forward with renewed enthusiasm. Also in attendance were veterans Lilianne Ploumen and Alexander De Croo.

The conference finalised a strategy for the next 5 years. SheDecides aims to (1) become stronger by attracting new allies. This will allow it to (2) take more political action to push for stronger commitments globally, both financial and political, to promote women's physical autonomy. That in turn will allow it (3) to speak with a much louder voice to counter opposition. Because the goal remains undiminished: to give all women, girls and young people the right to decide about their bodies, lives and futures.

Growing counterforces

Compared to 2017, there is a notable ray of hope today. After all, current US President Joe Biden has called off the Global Gag Rule. But that does not prevent conservative counterforces from pushing more and more into the foreground. Apparently, they perceive actions to support family planning, including contraception and access to safe abortion, as disruptive.

'They would like to put women back in the kitchen and put that forward as family values,' said Prime Minister De Croo on the subject at the SheDecides+5 conference. 'The US Supreme Court decision (which would allow states in the US to ban abortion, etc.) is an illustration of this. A study in The Lancet showed that decision could have a big impact: many women will die. Despite the fact that this is about a fundamental human right.'

The corona pandemic also hit women the hardest. Not only were women primarily on the front lines of saving lives in the healthcare industry, the various lockdowns led to increased domestic violence and greater gender inequality. The war in Ukraine is also having a negative impact.

Time and again, it has been shown that we can never rest on our laurels when it comes to sexual and reproductive rights, nor for gender equality and women's rights. They are always at risk, and very often they are the first to be at risk when a crisis occurs.

Alexander De Croo, Goedele Liekens and Axelle Red

Minister Alexander De Croo - in the company of Goedele Liekens and Axelle Red - on a mission in Senegal as part of SheDecides (2017). © SPF AE/FOD BZ

49 champions

This is why a movement like SheDecides still has more than enough reason to exist. As such, it aims to build upon what it has accomplished over the past 5 years. Today, SheDecides is operating in 27 countries. For example, there has been active advocacy for the right to abortion in Namibia, the Dominican Republic and Malawi. There were also major protests against the cuts in UK development cooperation on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

At various international forums such as the Generation Equality Forum, the Global Education Summit and climate summits, SRHR were put in the spotlight. In Brussels, France announced its intention to raise the issue at the G7 and the G20. Argentina legalised abortion in 2021. And with the Micaela Law, the country is seeking to put a stop to sexual violence and femicide (= murdering a woman because she is a woman) – a scourge in South America.

There are now 42 active SheDecides champions. These are individuals – some representing governments or organisations – who, separately or together, advocate for women's rights. Prime Minister De Croo is one of them.

Another 7 champions were presented in Brussels. These include Palestinian Enas Dajani, who is committed to gender equality and working for peace. She is trying to achieve this by providing safe spaces for young people and fostering a culture of dialogue and diversity. Congolese gender expert Richine Masengo is supporting young women and young people so that their voices are heard. In addition to SRHR, she also advocates for minorities such as LGBTQI+ and people with disabilities and albinism.

The 25x25 Generation of Equality includes 25 young people born in 1995, the year of the 4th World Conference on Women in Beijing. There, 189 countries committed to empowering women, but progress has been moderate. Hence, these 25 young people want to be active advocates for gender equality.

Belgium puts women's rights at centre stage

As the host country of the SheDecides+5 conference, naturally Belgium fully supports the objectives of SheDecides. Equal rights for men and women have long been at the heart of Belgian foreign policy and its development cooperation, and they will continue to be.

In all its activities, the Belgian Development Cooperation strives for access to SRHR in the broadest sense of the word and throughout the entire life cycle. This equally includes modern methods of contraception, safe abortion, and comprehensive sex education. A legal framework and effective access to information are essential for making the right decisions about sexuality and family planning.

Our country is also working on social and gender norms, including ‘transformative and limiting masculinity’. All too often, communities face entrenched habits where men dominate and discriminate against women. This needs to be redirected to ‘positive masculinity’, whereby women and men are actually each other's equals.

Men on board too

Both Development Minister Meryame Kitir and Prime Minister Alexander De Croo stressed: ‘Boys and men must become our allies. We can't win the battle if we don't have the men on board with us too.’

Gender equality is not an issue for women only, but for everyone. If men and women can reach their full potential, this benefits everyone. We cannot meet the enormous challenges we face – climate disruption, migration, job creation, etc. – if we continue to squander the talent of half the population.

In short, gender-equal communities are overwhelmingly better communities. Today, we need those better communities more than ever. Through the SheDecides movement, Belgium is seeking to build upon this with vigour.

Some of Belgium's support for SRHR

Belgium supports gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights through the UN Population Fund (UNFPA, €9 million per year), the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF, €15 million per year), UN Women (€4 million per year) and UNAIDS (€3 million per year).

The UNFPA Supplies (modern contraception) programme benefits from 2 million euros annually, while SheDecides receives 200,000 euros annually. In addition, our country donated 800,000 euros to the Global Survivors Fund in 2020. The latter was founded in 2019 by Nobel laureates Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad to 'rehabilitate' victims of sexual violence during conflicts.

Through a call for support, Belgium invested over 5.5 million euros in projects that empower women and encourage female leadership, challenge gender stereotypes and strive for positive masculinity.

Our country also has regard to SRHR in its governmental collaboration, especially with Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea, Rwanda, Benin, Palestine and soon with Tanzania and Mozambique. All totalled, more than 80 million euros by the end of 2024.

In Burkina Faso, SheDecides is battling against female genital mutilation. Because this custom is so deeply embedded, a number of Belgian universities and Enabel are investigating the mindset of the communities there. After all, actions and changes can only succeed if they come from the community itself.

In Rwanda, Enabel focused on the renovation and expansion of 8 youth-friendly family centres. Children and young people aged between 10 and 24 can go there for advice on SRHR, drugs and gender-based violence. 14 trainers, 523 educators and 139 health service providers received training.