European Development Days – leaders put gender equality at the heart of the development agenda

European Union

Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, (second from left) took part in a discussion on how energy can be a key driver for gender equality

World leaders gathered in Brussels, Belgium, for the 12th annual European Development Days conference on 5–6 June 2018. They emphasized the importance of empowering girls and women in all areas of life to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

In his opening address, President of the European Commission Mr Jean-Claude Juncker stressed the European Union’s commitment to development and aid funding. He defended a multilateral and all-sectors approach to acting together in order to empower women and girls, noting, “There can be no sustainable development if half of the world’s population is left behind.” He recalled the European Union’s commitment to eliminating violence against women and girls, including female genital mutilation.

At the opening ceremony, global leaders highlighted the importance of health and praised WHO’s work in promoting health and well-being. SDG advocate Her Majesty Queen Mathilde of Belgium said, “Mental health issues often hold women back and more needs to be done in this area.”

Her Majesty Queen Letizia of Spain referred in her opening address to the universality of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, emphasizing that “Every human being deserves education opportunities, access to health services and quality nutrition.”

His Excellency Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda, speaking on behalf of the African Union, said, “We are a long way from treating women with equality and respect. As a result, outcomes for women and girls continue to lag behind.” He referred in particular to ongoing work to achieve universal health coverage, using the example of the insurance scheme in Rwanda that allows women to continue receiving their full salary during 12 weeks of maternity leave.

United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Ms Amina J. Mohammed, speaking on behalf of the United Nations, urged leaders to accelerate progress to achieve gender equality across all policies and countries as a prerequisite for sustainable development. Moreover, she said that violence against women is a major health problem.

Universal health coverage is the best means to sexual and reproductive health and rights

WHO participated in a high-level panel session organized by the Belgian Government together with the Be-cause Health platform on the role that Europe must play in promoting sexual and reproductive health and rights.  

“We are living in a world where over half of the world’s population lacks access to essential health services,” said Dr Ian Askew, WHO Director of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research. “This is what we need to start with. When it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights, it gets worse than that.”

Today, about 1 million girls under the age of 15 give birth every year – most in low- and middle-income countries. More dramatically, some 3 million girls aged 15 to 19 undergo unsafe abortions annually.

Belgian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Development Cooperation Mr Alexander De Croo took this opportunity to highlight the important commitment the Belgian Government made with the launch, a year ago, together with the Netherlands, of the SheDecides campaign. This campaign has contributed 450 million euros to help provide sexual and reproductive health and rights in developing countries.

“Access to safe, voluntary family planning is a human right. WHO wants to see adolescent sexual and reproductive health and rights prioritized at national and subnational levels to achieve concrete impact,” Dr Askew said.

To underline this and to highlight the close link between education and sexual and reproductive health and rights, WHO and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization organized a session on the support that adolescents need to make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health and rights. Speakers in this session agreed that access to information, education and services is key.

Energy is a gender and a health issue

The effects of exposure to household air pollution are dramatic, particularly for women in low- and middle-income countries. Every year, 4 million people die from household air pollution. This is “preventable, and the cost of not doing anything is too high,” said Dr Maria Neira, WHO Director of the Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, during her intervention in a panel on how energy can be a key driver for gender equality.

Dr Neira recalled that household air pollution is a gender issue – millions of women cook and are exposed to unacceptable levels of pollutants.

Ms Marjeta Jager, European Commission Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation and Development, opened this session. She noted that, unfortunately, “Lack of access to affordable and clean energy affects all members of the community, but disproportionately women.” Ms Jager said that this is a priority for the European Commission and different projects have been launched to help women access clean energy.

About European Development Days

The 12th European Development Days conference welcomed over 8000 participants. The European Commission organized the event under the theme “Women and Girls at the Forefront of Sustainable Development: protect, empower, invest”.