EU action plan brings gender to the fore

by Greta Hopkins

Brussels, 24 Jun 2001 (IPS) - The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has agreed on a new action plan to integrate gender equality into all its development policies and projects, but rights activists warn that the effort could be held hostage to shrinking gender budget lines.

The Commission’s proposals are acknowledged to be more ambitious than earlier targets of mainstreaming gender issues in the EU’s development policies and projects.

However, “if the good intentions are to work in practice, the Commission will have to identify ways of getting money from other budget lines for gender purposes,” says Tacko Ndiaye, a consultant working for the Brussels-based lobby, Network Women in Development Europe (WIDE).

The new plan is expected to be released here later this week. Among other things, it will affect EU funding for projects such as the fight against HIV/AIDS, violence against women including rape and gender mutilation.

Mainstreaming, the by-word of the United Nations women’s conference in Beijing in 1995, means that all policies must include gender equality objectives from start to finish. The EU executive’s proposal envisions three inter-linked ways in which this can be achieved.

First, it states that equality questions should be integrated into the EU’s priority areas for development co-operation: support for macro-economic policies and the fight against poverty; food security and sustainable rural development; transport; reinforcement of institutional capacity and good governance; trade and development; and regional co-operation.

Second, they should be included in projects and programmes at regional and national level. While the main responsibility here goes to national authorities, the Commission says it has a key role to play in supporting initiatives in partner countries.

Third, the EU executive realises it has to set its own house in order on gender-friendly policies. Although the gender-desks in the Commission’s headquarters in Brussels are currently non-existent or under-staffed, the proposal promises to set about the gradual process of building up its own institutional capacity.

Gender training programmes are now available to all Commission personnel, including those in delegations abroad.

Ndiaye is also pleased that the new proposal shifts responsibility for taking up the gender theme from the small and over-worked gender desk, to all EU officials in charge of countries or projects.

“However, WIDE is concerned that these changes will not be properly implemented, because the gender budget line itself has shrunk,” says Ndiaye.

WIDE, a European network of gender specialists, human rights activists and women active in non-governmental development organisations (NGDOs), successfully pushed for the Commission’s proposal to mention a concern for sex equality in the EU’s trade policies.

“But, no concrete ideas are given as to how this should be done in practice,” notes Ndiaye.

Androulla Kaminara, a senior official in the office of Poul Nielson, the EU Commissioner responsible for Development Co-operation and Humanitarian Aid, says a major goal of the action plan is to give a “higher profile and impetus” to gender in all aspects of the EU’s development policy.

“We have already decided that gender dimensions must be considered as a crosscutting issue and mainstreamed in the planning of all development initiatives. This action plan shows the priority we intend to give gender issues”.

“Not all the objectives will be achieved overnight, but it is important to set out what the aims are, and who is responsible for doing what,” says Kaminara.

WIDE is also concerned about the lack of continuity due to quick turn-over of personnel on the Commission’s gender desk, which will by definition, take an active role in seeking to implement the proposal. The organization intends to carefully monitor the implementation of the Commission’s proposal.

WIDE chairperson Brigitte Holzner describes the women’s group as a “small mosquito” that buzzes around big donors and policy makers to remind them about the importance of women in development.

“We do not harm anybody, but we annoy them enough so they don’t forget we are here”, said Holzner last week at the launch of the organisation’s bulletin, ‘Gender in practice - Drawing lessons from the experiences in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific’. The report looks at projects implemented by WIDE in these three regions from 1997 to 1999.

The report details analytical and conceptual tools, training and capacity-building materials, leadership development tools, advocacy techniques and materials, and offers advice on how to communicate effectively on gender issues. It also covers specific themes such as violence against women, women and land ownership, and labour rights.

Benedicte Allaert, WIDE’s Project Coordinator for the European Union and Latin America, says that the objective is to articulate the success stories of women’s development NGOs.

Allaert told IPS that the EU’s development policy chief Poul Neilson wants to use NGOs to implement EU projects more, but that the budget line intended to fund NGO-inspired projects is also dwindling.

“We spend much of our time now filling in application forms for project proposals. We do not know if they will be accepted by the European Commission or by our own board. It is impossible to get a long-term view, as most of these projects don’t last longer than two years,” she says. – SUNS4922

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SUNS 4922, 26 Jun 2001