Written by Rosamund Shreeves and Martina Prpic.
Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teenager who has inspired a youth-led international movement to tackle climate change, is due to address the European Commission and the European Parliament in the same week as International Women’s Day. Seven years ago, the European Parliament awarded the Sakharov prize for freedom of thought to another teenager, Malala Yousafzai, who now spearheads a global campaign for girls’ education. The very fact that the voices of these young women are being heard in international fora shows that progress has been made towards girls’ participation in public life. However, in a recent interview on the rise of youth activism, the now 22 year-old Yousafzai also highlighted the contrast between the large numbers of girls coming forward as activists and the continued under-representation of young people – and women – at the tables where decisions are made.
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This is not a new issue. In 1995, the ground-breaking documents adopted at the UN’s World Conference on Women drew attention both to the persistent discrimination facing girls worldwide – and to their potential to advocate for themselves and their communities. In adopting the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (BPfA), 189 countries committed to uphold women’s rights and take measures in 12 interrelated areas where urgent action was needed, including the specific area of girls’ rights. This year’s 25th anniversary of the BPfA is being marked both by a review of progress and by a push to ensure that younger generations of activists are involved in setting future priorities.
For this year’s review of the BPfA, the EU’s gender equality institute, EIGE, has drawn up a comprehensive report focusing on developments and recommendations for future action. Its key message is that although efforts to advance the situation of women and girls have had an impact, substantial gender inequalities persist across all twelve areas of concern, including girls’ rights.
Poverty alleviation was the first area of concern in the Platform for Action. In 1995, the evidence showed that, worldwide, women and girls were more likely than men and boys to be at risk of or living in poverty. For individuals, this manifested as low income, food insecurity, homelessness, unsafe living conditions, higher risks of illness and barriers to participation in education and social and cultural life. Countries committed to take steps to address the needs of women and girls living in poverty, particularly the most marginalised, and to modify their macro-economic and social policies to take account of the gender dimension. However, 25 years on, gender disparities in poverty levels and impacts persist. Worldwide, women and girls are still 4 % more likely than men and boys to live in extreme poverty. EIGE’s report highlights that in the EU, young people aged 16-24 are currently the most affected age group, whilst children faced the highest risk across all age groups in 2017. Having a parent with a low educational level or from a migrant background increases the vulnerability to poverty and social exclusion. For these age groups, there is little gender difference in the level of risk. However, EIGE points out that the way that data on poverty is collected makes it difficult to see whether girls and boys within households have the same living standards.
There are also aspects of poverty that concern girls and young women specifically. In 2018, the World Health Organization drew attention to the issue of ‘menstrual’ or period poverty in the European Region. Studies find that the inability to afford sanitary products is impeding girls’ education. In 2019, survey research in the UK found that in the past 12 months, one in 20 girls aged between 14 and 21 had struggled to afford products and 4 % had been unable to access them. Over half (52 %) of the girls surveyed had missed school or college because of their period. The most common reason given was period-related cramps (85 %), but 7 % had missed school because they could not access or could not afford sanitary products, the equivalent of one girl in a class of 30 pupils. The European Parliament drew attention to the issue in its resolution of 15 January 2019 on gender equality and taxation policies in the EU, calling on all EU Member States to eliminate the so-called ‘tampon tax’ by making use of the flexibility introduced in the VAT Directive and applying exemptions or 0 % VAT rates. As things stand, VAT rates applied to menstrual hygiene products vary significantly between countries. Advocacy organisations such as the platform ‘Young Feminist Europe’ are calling for 0 % tariffs and distribution of free products.
Other concerns flagged in relation to girls’ rights include:
- Health and wellbeing: The indicators chosen to measure progress in this area at EU level are body self-image and sexual and reproductive health. Survey data for 2014 shows that in all EU countries, girls aged 15 and 13 are significantly more likely than boys of the same age to report that they are ‘too fat’, and the same pattern exists in most countries for 11 year-olds.
- The impacts of gender stereotypes: time-use data for adults shows that women still assume an unequal share of unpaid domestic and care work compared to men, which has consequences for their engagement in paid work and earnings over a lifetime. There is far less data on the division of household labour between girls and boys in the EU. However, a survey conducted amongst children aged 10-12 in 2013/2014 found that this pattern begins early. In the five EU Member States covered in the survey (Estonia, Germany, Poland, Romania, Spain) and the United Kingdom, girls were more likely to help with housework every day. On the other hand, girls were less likely to play sports or exercise on a daily basis.
- Gendered educational pathways: For adults, the labour market continues to be characterised by high levels of gender segregation and this pattern is also evident in secondary and tertiary education. Although girls and boys achieve similar levels in maths and science subjects in school, fewer girls study these subjects beyond the age of 15 and fewer girls expect to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This is a concern, because this sector is likely to expand.
- Emerging opportunities and challenges presented by digitisation: The digital sector could also be a gateway to skilled jobs and new means of expression and participation, but there are potential barriers to girls’ inclusion. It is estimated that one in ten women have already experienced cyber violence since the age of 15, adding to the level of violence experienced already offline. In 2019, the EU added four new indicators to measure the shares of 15 year-old girls and boys who have been cyberbullied and the shares of 16-19 year-old girls and boys who have above basic digital skills, feel confident about using digital technologies, and use digital technologies to take part in political life.
Looking forward, the United Nations has set up a Beijing +25 youth task force to help ensure that young people’s voices are heard in the review and the associated global campaign ‘Generation Equality: Realizing women’s rights for an equal future‘. Girls’ rights will also be mainstreamed in the multi-stakeholder coalitions that will identify concrete actions to be carried out between 2020 and 2025 in six priority areas. Each coalition must include one action that focuses on the rights of adolescent girls and young women and ensure that they are involved in setting priorities and monitoring. Against the backdrop of a global backlash against women’s rights, the aim is to remobilise, create partnerships to address persisting gender gaps and emerging issues, and make real progress on achieving equality for all women and girls worldwide.
In 2019, the European Parliament hosted an event during the European Week of Action for Girls (EWAG), bringing youth advocates and newly-elected Members together to discuss what matters to girls and young women in Europe, and how their needs and interests could be included in the EU’s next gender equality policy. A new EU gender equality strategy for 2020-2024 is due to be adopted by the European Commission on 5 March 2020.
- Briefing: Beijing Platform for Action: 25-year review and future priorities, Rosamund Shreeves, Martina Prpic, February 2020.
- Infographic: ‘Beijing Platform for Action – 25 Years On’, Giulio Sabbati, Martina Prpic and Rosamund Shreeves, February 2020.
- Topical Digest Gender equality: a review of progress, March 2020.