Six ways the Belgian Council Presidency can push for a Europe that prioritises the rights of girls and young women in crises worldwide.

1 February 2024


Plan International, Uganda, 2021. All rights reserved.

As we mark the one-month milestone into the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU, Plan International shares six recommendations for the EU to better protect the rights of children, girls and young women. As a leading humanitarian and development organisation for children and girls’ rights, Plan International welcomes the Belgian Presidency’s commitment to promote a truly ‘global Europe’. We call for urgent attention and a more robust approach to safeguarding the rights of girls and young women, who are disproportionally impacted by crises and armed conflict.

Our six recommendations for the Belgian Presidency of the Council of the EU (you can click on each title to learn more):

1. Scale up humanitarian and diplomatic leadership to ensure unimpeded humanitarian access, assistance and accountability

International Humanitarian Law (IHL), as defined by the Geneva Conventions, obliges parties to take clear steps to mitigate the impacts of war on civilians and infrastructure they rely on, including hospitals, ambulances and schools.  Yet, civilians now account for nearly 90 per cent of war-time casualties, and access to humanitarian assistance is increasingly impeded.

From the Sahel to Gaza, Ukraine to Sudan, Haiti to Colombia, IHL violations continue to mount with devastating impacts. In 2022, over 1,000 confirmed attacks on health care took place in emergency-affected countries and fragile settings. The same year, more than 3,000 attacks on education were identified, a 17 percent increase over the previous year. This renders the full realisation of the Safe Schools Declaration and the Comprehensive School Safety Framework crucial.

Sexual and gender-based violence continues to be used as a war tactic to terrorize girls and young women, from Sudan to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Globally women and girls account for 94 per cent of cases of conflict-related sexual violence committed in 2022. However, the funding allocated to research on violence against women and girls is disproportionately low. Less than 1% of total ODA goes to research or programming on violence against women and girls.

Additionally, access barriers prevent aid from reaching those in need. Humanitarians who try to assist civilians face an increasingly challenging operating and funding landscape, including threats of arrest, detention, litigation and direct violence. In some crises, humanitarian aid and humanitarians themselves are actively blocked. Hospitals, refugee camps, and schools are bombed. People are starving because of entirely man-made causes and this starvation is used as a weapon of war. These are all violations against International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and it is crucial for the EU and its member states not only to speak up against such practices but also to use all their power to prevent them from happening.  

Compliance with IHL and accountability for violations are non-negotiable and we cannot accept the violations any longer. The EU’s support for a Global Observatory on the Fight Against Impunity is welcome, ensuring shared information and data about genocide, crimes against humanity and serious breaches of human rights. However, more is needed. Legal rules are effective only if enforced. Awareness of violations must be matched with scaling up humanitarian diplomacy by the EU and its member states to push for accountability and justice for victims. Successful criminal prosecutions must be brought against those committing war crimes.

2. Improve quality humanitarian funding, including by addressing the funding gap and ensuring affected populations are involved in funding mechanisms.

By the end of 2023, approximately 363 million people were in humanitarian need, with the number increasing fourfold since 2014. Yet, the global humanitarian appeal was only 36% funded, leaving a funding gap of US$ 36 billion.

The Belgian Presidency must take a leading role to bridge this growing gap. By mobilising the support of EU member states and the broader international community, the EU can collectively help alleviate the suffering of those affected by crises. This includes building on existing EU commitments in the 2023 Council Conclusions on Addressing the Humanitarian Funding Gap and ensuring adherence to the budgetary rules and principles set out in the NDICI regulation. Considering the on-going Multiannual Financial Framework mid-term review negotiations, we urge the Belgian Presidency to reject any redeployments of the NDICI and advocate for the reinforcement of the humanitarian aid budget.

It is equally critical to ensure that aid is of high quality, reaches those most in need, and involves those impacted by crises in decision-making, including around funding. The Belgian Presidency has a key role in spearheading the EU’s commitments under the Grand Bargain, pushing for progress on the 2023 ECHO guidelines on equitable partnerships with local responders in humanitarian settings, and moving the EU closer to a more inclusive and equitable localisation agenda. The upcoming European Humanitarian Forum provides a key opportunity to drive this forward.

Another step to ensure funding reaches those who need it most is to revisit the UN Humanitarian Response Plans mechanisms and ensure that a wider number of stakeholders is involved in shaping them. National and local organisations, youth groups, and women-led organisations need to be provided with increased opportunities to feed into, monitor and evaluate response plans that affect them. This should increase both response effectiveness as well as accountability to affected communities and vulnerable groups especially women and girls.

3. Ensure increased attention and urgent assistance for forgotten crises and their impact on girls and young women

Relegated to the status of ‘forgotten crises’, some crises don’t receive anywhere near the level of political, diplomatic or funding support required to alleviate suffering. The result is catastrophic for millions of people, but also a serious threat to international peace and security – whether it’s the conflict in Sudan, the largest internal displacement crisis globally with an estimated 9.05 million internally displaced persons (IDPS) as of 31 December 2023, or the deteriorating situation in the Sahel, facing one of the largest global food crises in recent history. Millions of children and other civilians are experiencing extreme suffering and see no end in sight in these neglected and forgotten crises. This must change.

A crisis affects everyone but it is rarely gender-neutral, with girls and young women facing disproportionate impacts. Looking at the Central Sahel, the hunger crisis largely reinforces the violation of girls’ rights. When food is scarce, girls often eat less and eat last. Not only do they have access to less food, but they often bear the brunt when families resort to negative coping strategies. Girls are most likely to be removed from school and are most at risk of child, early and forced marriage and sexual exploitation.

The EU decision to allocate at least 15% of its annual humanitarian budget to forgotten crises shows leadership but more is needed. For instance, as this year began, global funding for Sudan was barely at 40% of what the Humanitarian Response Plan calls for, while nearly one in two people are in need of humanitarian assistance.

The EU must use its power to push not only its member states, but also the wider international community to act with urgency and solidarity to address neglected and forgotten conflicts and other crises. As part of this collective effort, we welcome the commitment by the Belgian Presidency to continue drawing attention to underfunded and forgotten crises in the months ahead, including at the upcoming European Humanitarian Forum.

4. Take concrete steps to better protect and support children trapped in conflict

In times of conflict, children are always especially vulnerable to abuse and exploitation, despite enjoying specific protections under International Humanitarian Law. Over 400 million children in need of protection and humanitarian assistance worldwide, and girls are at particularly heightened risk. This year, the UN verified more than a quarter of a million grave child rights violations in areas under conflict.

Children are always innocent and must never be targeted, including in war and conflict. Yet, in 2023 they experienced an unprecedented scale of direct attacks and rampant violations of their rights. In July 2023, ahead of the UN Security Council’s Annual Debate on Children in Armed Conflict (CAAC), Plan International issued a report revealing the alarming situation facing children in five conflicts, namely Burkina Faso, Niger, Cameroon, Mozambique and Haiti.

In Burkina Faso, the closure of schools is affecting girls in particular as child marriage is driven by gender inequality and the belief that women and girls are somehow inferior to men and boys. 52% of girls in Burkina Faso are married before their 18th birthday and 10% are married before the age of 15, compared to 4% boys that get married before the age of 18. In Cameroon, more than 2 million people are on the move as internally displaced persons (or IDPs), returnees or refugees. Women and girls make up most of the displaced: 52% of the refugees are girls and women, and 55% are children. 51% of internally displaced persons are children- making more than half prone to sexual and gender-based violence.

 In Gaza, the devastating impact of war on children is starkly evident. At least 10,000 children have been killed,  1,000 have been severely maimed and 1.1 million – the entire child population in Gaza – denied access to adequate humanitarian assistance.

In such a context, the Belgian Presidency should prioritise the ongoing revision of the EU Guidelines on Children and Armed Conflict, including the full recognition of the six grave violations identified by the UN Security Council, and to increase the focus on the protection of education in emergencies. The EU must also support long term funding for programmes to support children and girls in conflict situations, such as adequately funded reintegration programmes for children associated with armed forces and armed groups (CAAFAG) and girls (GAAFAG). The Presidency also needs to ensure greater space for children’s participation in the European Humanitarian Forum – space that is meaningful, safe and inclusive.

5. Prioritise sustainable youth participation in EU decision-making

With shrinking and shifting civic space, and stalled progress on gender equality, young people around the world take over streets and online spaces to reclaim their right to influence decisions. The 2023 Plan International State of the World Girls Report explored the barriers girl and young women activists face and the motivations that drive them forward. Our research showed that 95% of the girls and young women surveyed believe that activism has a positive impact on them. However, 25% felt emotionally or psychologically unwell or anxious during their activism, 61% faced negative consequences as a result of their activism, and 54% identified lack of finances as the main barrier hindering them from engaging in activism.

Championing youth empowerment is not only an ethical imperative, it is also a logical one. With 1.8 billion young people between the ages of 10 to 24, and close to 90% of them in low- and middle-income countries, this is the right moment to provide an enabling environment for young people to be the powerful agents of change they are. In the past few years, the EU has prioritized the issue through several initiatives, including the launch of the EU Youth Action Plan (YAP), the EU Youth Sounding Board and the European Year of Youth. Plan International has been actively supporting these developments, for instance by working hand in hand with the EU Delegation in Mozambique and the Center for Democracy and Development to support young people in associations that participate in democratic processes, including through the creation of a Youth Sounding Board at the EU Delegation level.

The Belgian Presidency must be a strong voice for active youth participation in policy-making related to EU development cooperation, as committed in the approved Council Conclusions on the YAP. The Presidency should work with the EU and its Delegations to deliver on the YAP priorities and dedicated Team Europe Initiatives (TEIs). This would mean actively seeking input from and exchanges with young people in Council meetings, supporting and contributing to the creation of Youth Sounding Boards in partner countries, and sharing expertise and resources with the EU as it seeks to become better at funding youth-led initiatives with more flexible and accessible funding.

6. Lay the groundwork for an EU feminist foreign policy

The EU and some of its member states are considered global frontrunners when it comes to standing up for gender equality. It is time that EU Institutions and member states take the next step towards the implementation of an EU intersectional feminist foreign policy. The Belgian Presidency already gave signs of its commitment, with Belgian Minister of Development Cooperation Caroline Gennez speaking at the international conference “Reimagining power structures: the potential of feminist foreign policy” on 17 January, where important discussions were held between decision-makers and civil society.

Feminist foreign policy reframes traditional foreign policy through the lens of gender equality and women’s rights, placing these at the core of international engagements and decision-making. The main objectives of feminist foreign policy are to dismantle patriarchal and gender-based inequalities, promote peace, security, and sustainable development, and ensure that the rights and needs of women and girls are addressed at every level of foreign policy.

The Belgian Presidency should integrate gender mainstreaming into EU foreign and security policy as outlined in the EU Gender Action Plan (GAP) III 2020 to 2027. It should also lay the groundwork by pushing forward discussions on intersectional feminist foreign policy amongst member states and in consultation with civil society.

EU institutions could be announcing an EU intersectional feminist foreign policy ahead of the upcoming GAP in 2027, but the work needs to start now.