In my experience as Commissioner I have already witnessed many positive changes happen in developing countries all across the globe. However, there is one aspect of particular importance that requires more international attention if we want to achieve sustainable development. I believe in a world where equal opportunities for both men and women are a fact, not just wishful thinking. A world which is free of cruelty and violence against girls and women and where they are able to rise to their potential. This is why I have made gender equality a political and a personal priority for international cooperation and development during my mandate.
Since it is such a cross-cutting issue, gender was placed at the core of the new Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in 2015 which also encompass a stand-alone gender goal (SDG5), aiming to end all form of discrimination against girls and women and to empower them.
To address such a complex task, the EU has agreed on a new Gender Action Plan, ''Transforming the Lives of Girls and Women through EU External Relations'' (GAP) for 2016-2020. Relying on three thematic pillars, we advocate for the social, economic and political empowerment of girls and women, as a pre-requisite for achieving sustainable development.
We have also introduced a systematised monitoring framework in the new GAP, which also allows us to gather sex-disaggregated data during project implementation. This is crucial if we want to make girls and women more visible and relevant in development cooperation and its outcomes. My clear message is - no women, no development, no dignity – as development assistance without gender perspective simply cannot be regarded as development.
We advocate for the social, economic and political empowerment of girls and women, as a pre-requisite for achieving sustainable development.
We have to put girls and women in the driving seat of development and ensure that they have equal access to healthcare, education, employment, services and resources. Only that will give them equal means for a respectable and productive life, as entrepreneurs, peace-builders, scientists, mothers.
One of the key factors for girls' and women's empowerment in all segments of life is education. Since 2004, the EU has helped 300,000 female students enrol in secondary education and contributed to boosting the enrolment in primary education to 90% between 1990 and 2011, which translates into a total of 13.7 million new pupils. I am sure that this has given many women and girls a stronger voice and has also helped them strengthen their roles both in public and private life.
This takes me back to last years' social media ''take over'' event, initiated by Plan International, during which I was personally inspired by such a strong, courageous and bright voice and mind of a 23-year old Senegalese girl I had the pleasure of meeting.
At the same time, we also know that in the poor regions of India still 47% of women currently aged 20–24 got married before the legal age of 18. This is why the EU has started four state-wide action plans on child marriage in the north-western state of Rajastan, generating community-led awareness raising and large-scale media coverage in favour of ending child marriage.
Another key factor for further progress in gender equality at global level is girls’ and women's economic empowerment. And this is not only a matter of social justice or equality – it is also "smart economics". We have clear evidence that if you empower a woman economically, you will not only empower her family but also the whole community. I will therefore seek to ensure that the EU's work in promoting sustainable development and inclusive growth in our partner countries always gives due consideration to gender perspectives and impacts.
Despite the progress made so far in all areas, our mission continues as long as we are faced with issues like child, early or forced marriage, female illiteracy or denied access to economic resources and exchanges. Not only that these situations pose a threat to girls' and women's freedom and potential to fully contribute to their communities, they also directly limit our efforts to eradicate poverty and achieve sustainable development. This is simply unacceptable and has to be fully addressed, once and for all.
The EU is determined to fight for gender equality and the prevention of all forms of violence against girls and women worldwide. We will use our GAP to close the gap in gender equality for good - a goal I am confident we will achieve if we all work together in partnership: governments, private sector, civil society and international organisations.
This article was first published in the Special Edition of the Girls' Rights Gazette "Girls 2030: A Working Future", published in June 2016 for the European Deveopment Days.