EU-ASEAN Action on Gender Equality: IFAIR Discusses with Experts and Policy-Makers

EU-ASEAN Action on Gender Equality: IFAIR Discusses with Experts and Policy-Makers

IFAIR’s group of young European and Southeast Asian experts called for more EU-ASEAN cooperation on promoting gender equality at two events in Brussels in November 2016. After months of intense work on female empowerment and interregional relations, they presented their ideas to the public and discussed with civil-society experts and high-level policy-makers, among them Helga Schmid, Secretary-General of the European External Action Service (EEAS).

The events, conducted in cooperation with the European Institute for Asian Studies, were the culmination of IFAIR’s 3rd EU-ASEAN Perspectives Dialogue (EUAP III). The EUAP Dialogues bring together young researchers and experts from ASEAN and the EU countries. During the third edition, young practitioners and researchers from both regions discussed challenges for gender equality based on their diverse personal experiences and expertise. The fruits of their work can be read in their recently published Policy Paper, which addresses three main dimensions: education and culture, political participation and economic empowerment.

During a three-day visit of an EUAP III delegation to Brussels, the participants presented the results to a young audience in a Citizen Café, an interactive discussion format. Organized around four major themes, the participants of the Café engaged in lively discussions on female political empowerment, gender sensitive education, women in the economy and men’s engagement in the fight for gender equality. Later on the same day, IFAIR organized a panel debate to which the wider public was invited. The highlight of this panel debate was Secretary-General Helga Schmid’s opening speech, in which she addressed global challenges to gender equality and argued that the EU and ASEAN should not only see themselves as partners in trade, but also as allies in the promotion of social and human rights values.

Gender equality? Now is the right time for action

Schmid agreed with the authors of the EUAP policy paper that the current situation of persistent gender inequality around the world reveals a pressing need for dedicated action. For too long, she said, gender equality has been overlooked or pushed aside for the benefit of other policy areas like trade, external relations or security issues. However, constant and fast-growing economies have benefitted only one part of the world’s population while putting vulnerable groups like migrants, especially female ones, at a disadvantage.

The discrimination of women is still a feature of everyday life in Europe and Southeast Asia, where women lack access to information, justice and education. This, in turn, widens the economic gender gap. As a consequence, Schmid claimed, on a worldwide scale about 47% of economic talents are not used adequately – a gigantic waste of potential, according to her.

The Secretary-General also referred to women’s situation in war zones, where they are often denied adequate protection. For this reason, she called for a greater consideration of gender aspects and approaches in peace and security policies. As a possible solution, Schmid proposed a higher participation of women in key decision-making positions which could have the advantage of bringing new perspectives and ideas into political negotiations and bargaining processes.

With a view to the interregional cooperation advocated by the EUAP participants, Schmid noted that the EU and its External Action Service (EEAS) are constantly mainstreaming gender equality in all of their actions and relations with foreign partners. For this, the EU has just recently adopted a new framework for its Gender Agenda. Gender equality plays a crucial role in the EU’s human rights’ work also vis-à-vis Southeast Asia. For example, the EU has invited representatives of ASEAN human rights bodies to Brussels. This study trip contributed largely to the establishment of an official Policy Dialogue on Human Rights between ASEAN and the EU in 2015. Even though the measures taken are certainly a good step into the right direction, Schmid warned that recent initiatives and actions were still conducted at a slow pace and there still remained a lot to do in the future. For this purpose, she said, more region-to-region cooperation and the inclusion of civil society will be needed. In particular, policy-makers should give young people a louder voice to raise their ideas and visions.

So, what needs to be done?

Schmid’s remarks kicked off a panel discussion which engaged a diverse group of high-level academics, civil society representatives and policy experts from Southeast Asia and Europe. The speakers included Graziella Piga, Expert at the Gender Facility which provides guidance and support to the EU’s Instrument contributing to Stability and Peace (IcSP), Laurel Henning, Co-Founder of the social media campaign #EUPanelWatch, Phrommes Bhaholpolbhayuhasena, Chargé d’Affaires at the Royal Thai Embassy / Mission of Thailand to the European Union, and Marisna Yulianti, participant of EUAP III.

There was a general consent that the EU had provided a good foundation by making a big effort in adopting various legal and policy frameworks. Nevertheless, there must be a clear differentiation between the adoption and the practical implementation of commitments. The lack of successful implementation indicates a lack of political will in certain EU Member States. This again proves that a lot of follow-up work still needs to be done.

In this context, Laurel Henning, co-founder of the campaign #EUPanelWatch and recently listed as one of the most influential women in Brussels, presented the work of her organisation and explained why it was often considered to be a “nightmare” for many politicians. The campaign monitors the degree of female participation in public panel discussions in Brussels. Showcasing compelling data on the persistent underrepresentation of women in political debate, she emphasized the need for more awareness-raising and discussions dealing with gender equality.

The panellists highlighted that people often had a wrong image of what feminism is and what feminists actually do. It is not only about “rebelling on streets” and “burning bras”, but rather about removing the exclusive focus on women and about making the male population realize that feminism is not opposed to men in general. The general stereotyped ideas of how men and women have to be are harmful to both sexes. Therefore, the speakers recognized a demand for more male participation and inclusion in the combat for gender equality, which in turn would be beneficial for the whole society in general and for men in particular.

After the official panel debate, the floor was opened to the public, which engaged in a vivid discussion. During this exchange, guests stressed the relevance of education as one dimension that needed more attention. Gender-sensitizing should be mainstreamed in school and even pre-school curricula of children, thus making them understand that particular professions are not exclusively reserved for a certain sex. However, the recommendations also included considerations for cultural sensitivity, traditions and mentalities which might not always be in favour of a straight-forward promotion of gender equality.

The two events reinforced the claim by the young EUAP experts that there is a lot to be gained from continued dialogue and cooperation on gender issues between the EU and ASEAN. Using the insights gained from the debates, the participants are now continuing their analyses and advocacy, for example during the Regional Consultation on Gender Equality and Political Empowerment of Women on the sidelines of the 2016 Bali Democracy Forum.