Image courtesy of the European Council

An Eastern Partnership that delivers for all, except women?

Although building a resilient and sustainable economy, anchoring human rights and fostering democracy will be impossible without women’s equal participation, many Eastern Partnership countries face huge challenges to correct their gender imbalance, argues Anna Barseghyan.

Among Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries, women are strikingly absent in the structures of power. Although women have quantitative representation in politics, it is not converted into qualitative participation in the decision-making process. Women represent only 14% of ministers and 16% of parliamentarians of the EaP countries. This is despite the fact that there are no legislative obstacles for women to rise through the halls of government. Rather, social barriers and stereotypes hamper the full potential of women.

Among EaP countries, Georgia is the first to have a female president, although her powers are similar to those of the ceremonial British monarch. Ukraine and Moldova have especially low rates of women’s labour force participation. This lack of gender equality begs the question: how the can the Eastern Partnership be used to promote women’s empowerment?

A new Eastern Partnership?

In mid-March of 2020, the European Commission released a policy guide for the second decade of the Eastern Partnership, entitled: “Reinforcing Resilience: An Eastern Partnership that delivers for all”. The document has five pillars, which form the basis for cooperation between the EU and the six Eastern Neighbours—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Belarus, Moldova and Ukraine. They include:

  1.   Working together for resilient, sustainable, and integrated economies;
  2.   Working together for accountable institutions, the rule of law, and security;
  3.   Working together towards environmental and climate change resilience;
  4.   Working together towards a concrete digital transformation;
  5.   Working together for fair and inclusive societies.

Despite the many important policy suggestions within the document, the issue of women’s empowerment is underemphasized.  The communication does stress the need to address digital skill gaps with a particular focus on gender equality and social inclusiveness and gender inequalities were mentioned once more in the paragraph: “the need to address gender inequalities and for their active participation in democratic life and fostering civic engagement.” However, there are few other mentions of this critical topic.

This relative absence is surprising. In March, the Commission released a comprehensive declaration on its gender policy. Somehow, few of these policies made it into the more recent communication of the broader goals of the Partnership. The Eastern Partnership has entered its second decade and it is disappointing that gender inequalities and the empowerment of the women are not addressed more comprehensively. This is particularly true because many EaP countries are still very vulnerable and the rights of the women are not well protected.

The long road to gender equality

The quality of democracy is about the inclusion of different social groups, including women, in the governing of institutions. However, gender issues have never been the focus in either the European Neighborhood policy or the Eastern Partnership.  It is surprising that even when the EU spoke about “deep democracy” in the Revision of the European Neighborhood policy in 2011, there were no mentions of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

2015 was a pivotal year from that perspective. The first time, gender was mentioned is in the Riga declaration of the 2015 Eastern Partnership summit with one small sentence: “Gender equality is a promising new area of cooperation.”  A huge incentive for including gender issues into the Eastern Partnership’s agenda is that the issue has been present in global trends. In September 2015 at the United Nation’s Summit, gender equality became 5th among 30  Sustainable Development Goals that were planned for implementation by 2030. It was a global call to action framework which has implications at the regional level. Moreover, 2015 was the 15th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security, and the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. This was followed in 2016 by the European Parliament Resolution on the rights of women in the Eastern Partnership region.

This promising start formed groundwork for future policies. In the 2017 Brussels declaration of the Eastern Partnership summit, gender issues had more distinct role. In the document, women’s empowerment takes on an economic dimension. Mainly, the declaration states that gender equality will help release the full economic and social potential of the Eastern Partnership countries. The main guideline for achieving it is the EU Gender Action Plan II which says “gender equality and non-discrimination will allow the partner countries to take full advantage of the economic and social potential within their societies.” The EU has promised to support enactment of relevant legislation and boost economic prospects for women entrepreneurs.

The promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment is one of the branches of the EU’s external relations and is being implemented by the EU Gender Action Plan (GAP). GAP II, which covered 2016-2020, aimed to turn the world into a place where the rights of girls and women are recognized, valued and respected by all, and where everyone is able to fulfill their potential and contribute to a fairer and more just society. For the upcoming period of 2021-25, the EU has already adopted the Gender Equality & Women’s Rights Worldwide Action Plan, reaffirming that gender equality and women’s rights are a key strand of EU foreign policy.

The future of women’s empowerment in the EaP

Despite the EU’s emphasis on these issues, they are sorely lacking in the European Partnership. The EU should use its recent history of emphasizing gender policy as a stepping stone to achieving the same goals with its eastern neighbours.

In the upcoming Brussels summit, all parties need to focus on eliminating discrimination and gender-based violence, providing rights for sexual and reproductive health. The EU’s role could be crucial to support developing legal instruments and mechanisms to prevent discrimination and violence. From that perspective, it is critical to sign and ratify the Istanbul convention on “Preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence,” which will serve as a legal basis to amend the legal system, to address all violence, and to ensure penalties for perpetrators. It will also encourage the states to ensure better conditions for asylum for the women who are the victims of violations. However, just the signing of the convention has been accepted  by most of the Eastern Partners, expect Georgia. The EU and the partner countries should work for hand in glove to poses positive results regarding the improvement of the legal mechanisms.

The EU should help to ensure mechanisms for women’s access to dignified jobs and social protection, guarantee basic freedoms of non-discrimination, and fight against the gendered labour market. Increasing women’s economic participation should be the cornerstone of the Brussels summit and one of the ways to achieve a resilient economy. The situation is especially dramatic in many rural areas, where the gender pay gap is enormous, women are mostly underpaid and work is unregistered. The EU should include quotas for its economic-related programs and ensure gender balance. One of the long-term solutions can be an investment in education, development of women’s skills. The participation in the COSME and Erasmus+, Creative Europe, Horizon 2020 can drastically improve the situation.

The EU should promote women’s political participation, and combating the stereotype that women are weak participants in political systems. One of the main obstacles of women’s greater inclusion in the labour market and the political sector is gender-based stereotypes. The indicator of real democracy will be the gender balance in political life too. There is a need to promote legislative transformation and impose quotas to ensure equal participation.

Without addressing these points, elaborating on well-developed mechanisms to achieve gender equality, and expanding on many other gender issues, the full potential and capacity of women will not be used to achieve equality and prosperity in the Eastern Partnership.

Anna Barseghyan is a political analyst, focusing on the European Neighbourhood Policy.

The opinions expressed in this blog contribution are entirely those of the author and do not represent the positions of the Dahrendorf Forum or its hosts Hertie School and London School of Economics or its funder Stiftung Mercator.