It’s that time of the year again: La Rentrée. But this year it looks rather different. This year we are returning to school and our workplaces masked and 2m apart. Despite interrupted holiday plans, I am returning to work re-energised and with renewed motivation. I am ready to push harder and be bolder than ever over the coming months to try prevent the undoing of decades of progress in girls’ equality due to COVID-19.
COVID-19 has laid bare the inequalities entrenched in our system, a system that fails to protect the most marginalised and that collapses when crisis hits. A system in which girls and adolescent girls are disproportionately exposed to risk, and were hit the hardest by COVID-19. Interrupted education and lack of protection systems mean they take on household tasks and caring roles; they risk early, child and forced marriage; and they face abuse and violence, including female genital mutilation. But despite all this, I have heard many great stories on how girls and young women have raised their voices all over the world to lead their communities through the crisis.
As Commissioner Jutta Urpilainen has recognised: “Globally adolescent girls are agents of change. […] We must provide spaces for girls (and boys) to be listened to and it is up to us to listen.”
Therefore, in this opportunity for seismic change, the EU as a global actor must stay true to their promise to put women and girls at the centre “to build a better future for all”. It has a duty to listen to girls’ voices and leadership to build a world steered and designed by girls, an equal, resilient, and diverse world, prepared to face ever new challenges.
Thus, I call on the EU to:
1. Include Girls’ Voices in your Gender Action Plan (GAP III)
This autumn I look forward to the EU’s GAP III to promote gender equality in its external action. To truly serve its purpose, I would welcome an even more ambitious, transformative, and intersectional action plan that seriously attempts to break down the structural barriers and gender norms holding girls back. We want the GAP to create structures to unlock girls’ potential and creativity in all their diversity, enhancing girls’ rights worldwide, including in the digital sphere. Our Girls Action Plan, with the Girls Advocacy Alliance (GAA) showcases the voices of 128 young people in Ghana, Ethiopia, and India, and shows that girls want their voices heard and that they want to lead - because yes, we are true believers in “nothing should be decided for girls without girls!”.
because yes, we are true believers in “nothing should be decided for girls without girls!”.
2. Learn from our Youth Advocates during the European Week of Action for Girls (EWAG)
Another highlight this autumn is EWAG. Eight Brussels’ based girls’ rights organisations have come together under “Girls Connect” with 30 youth advocates from the European and African continents to mark the International Day of the Girl on 11th October. While the EU-Africa Partnership is being shaped, this force of youth advocates will give their all to make sure their demands and priorities are taken into account. Our Youth Advocates agree that girls everywhere should:
- Live free from harm;
- Be educated on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR);
- Have access to education;
- Have equal opportunities for economic empowerment;
- Have space to speak out and participate in decision-making.
3. Leave no one behind in your goal of digitalisation
The EU wants to create a Europe Fit for a Digital Age. Yet our reliance on technology is deepening social divides as girls, women, and marginalised groups are least likely to have access to technology and the internet. The EU must ensure full connectivity for everyone, while catering for those who are not yet online. As Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (Executive Director, UN Women), and Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen (CEO, Plan International) argue (see blog), connectivity is a vital lifeline and should be a human right:
“We stand at a crossroads: we can allow the COVID-19 crisis to reinforce the worst impacts of digital gender divide; or we can use the crisis to accelerate change, expand horizons, and get millions of girls and women online”.
Girls and young women are powerful drivers of equality, yet they are disproportionately targeted by online bullying and harassment, a possible barrier to realising their potential.
Girls and young women are powerful drivers of equality, yet they are disproportionately targeted by online bullying and harassment, a possible barrier to realising their potential. With the October launch of our Global Campaign “Girls Get Equal: Freedom Online”, I wholeheartedly encourage the online community, digital stakeholders, the EU and governments to take a zero tolerance approach as well as active steps to end harassment and violence against girls and young women on digital platforms.
Equality and democracy are enshrined in the Treaty on European Union. For true democracy, everyone’s experiences and voices must be represented in our structures, systems, policy and practices. Yet, the digital world mirrors the inequalities of the physical world – neutrality is an illusion. The digital world must be democratised to hand power back to the people.
COVID-19 is challenging us in many ways, but it also gives us the opportunity to reset, putting people first with girls playing a vital role. I am ready to take on this mission, and to come up with a sustainable plan to realise a truly equal and inclusive path, for everyone. Not just now, but for the future too. Are you?