Gender equality is central to Belgian foreign policy

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Every day is march

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In the ‘SDG of the month’ section, we present an activity (or activities) by our FPS that is doing its bit for the SDGs every month. These SDGs are the 17 Sustainable Development Goals from the United Nations, a roadmap for a better world by 2030.

Gender equality

Another 99.5 years

Gender equality forms an important part of this. SDG5 describes in minute detail everything that is needed to achieve gender equality: ending all forms of discrimination, eliminating all violence towards women, banning all harmful practices such as child marriages and female genital mutilation around the world, ensuring equal opportunities, and so on.

Gender equality is also crucial for achieving many of the other SDGs. Just imagine the impact on economies and communities if half the world's talent could thrive freely!

Nonetheless, the situation does not look particularly rosy. According to a report from the World Economic Forum from late 2019, it will take another 99.5 years before we reach gender equality. The COVID-19 pandemic made the situation for women even worse: greater poverty, more (domestic) violence, a less equal distribution of unpaid domestic and care tasks, etc.

Promotion of gender equality at the international level

This is why Belgium has taken the theme of gender very much to heart, both in its domestic as in its foreign policy. Much of domestic gender policy is supported by international treaties ratified by Belgium. The ‘UN Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women’ (CEDAW), for example, obliges our country to make a regular report to the CEDAW Committee.

Our ‘National Action Plan to combat all forms of gender-related violence’ is fully in line with the Istanbul Convention, a legally binding treaty from the Council of Europe. This is an organisation with 47 European countries as members, with 6 non-European countries as observers. It mainly focuses on human rights, democracy and the rule of law.

Belgium is making serious efforts to promote gender equality at an international level. Our country is working together with like-minded nations to that end. For example, our diplomats are calling for the Istanbul Convention and CEDAW to be ratified and implemented as widely as possible, all around the world. This is despite opposition from a conservative viewpoint. After all, a number of countries take the view that the concept of gender equality would undermine traditional family values – with a traditional role for women – and would promote LGBTI.

Belgium is also keen to share its experiences with the theme of gender and publicise successful initiatives. For example, this country established Sexual Assault Care Centres in Ghent, Brussels and Liège, which victims of sexual assault can turn to 24 hours a day.

Women, Peace and Security

Mirroring the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), Belgium is presently implementing its 3rd ‘National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security’. The resolution calls for women to be able to participate, on an equal footing with men, in the prevention and management of conflicts, and in peace and security processes. Women must also be protected during (post-)conflict situations.

Belgium's WPS action plan contains an important section for foreign policy. In particular, the theme must feature explicitly in the Belgian Development Co-operation's partner countries, in the international organisations of which Belgium is a member, in countries where Belgian military forces are active and in countries with which we maintain bilateral relations. The 3 focus countries are Mali, DR Congo and Burkina Faso.

Woman in consultation

A success story of Enabel in Congo: Victims of sexual violence can count on a holistic follow-up (medical, psychological, legal, re-integration into society). © Enabel

Belgian Development Co-operation

The Belgian Development Co-operation is paying a lot of attention to the issue. It wants to make women economically independent, by promoting female entrepreneurship and granting them equal access to raw materials and income. Equal access to education for girls is also essential. Sexual and reproductive rights are a point for consideration in every project.

In its memorandum on alleviating the socio-economic consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belgian Development Co-operation has particular consideration for the battle against sexual violence. A number of NGOs active in the field are receiving support, but the Belgian Development Agency (Enabel) also carries out projects on sexual violence. Enabel successfully tested a holistic approach in Congo. Victims can count on it for medical and psychological monitoring, as well as legal aid and assistance with re-integration into society.

At the FPS

Finally, the FPS wants to look closer to home. Particularly for foreign-service careers (ambassadors and consulates) and the higher orders of internal careers (executive board in Brussels), the figures for gender equality show room for improvement. The Minister of Foreign Affairs wants to do everything to rectify the situation. A gender action plan was approved and an internal survey investigated the obstacles that slow down the ambitions of women. And on 8 March 2021 - World Women's Day - a well-attended internal seminar was held on gender equality within the FPS, in the presence of the Minister.