The European Union and Women's Rights: Between Economic Efficiency and Fundamental Rights

By Annamária Tóth | 5 November 2012

To quote this document: Annamária Tóth, “The European Union and Women's Rights: Between Economic Efficiency and Fundamental Rights”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Monday 5 November 2012,, displayed on 02 April 2023

“We know that anywhere in the world, where women prosper, societies prosper. In the interest of everyone is to include women in every part of society,” Catherine Ashton recently said in New York. Her statement shows well that the European Union defines itself as protector of women's rights in its actions at the European as well as the international level.


The event titled “Equal Futures Partnership” was organised on 24 September 2012 during the 67th General Assembly of the United Nations. It is a new initiative to promote the political participation and economic empowerment of women. Catherine Ashton, High Representative of the European Union for Foreign and Security Policy, underlined the importance of women's rights in the EU's external policies. She reaffirmed the EU's commitment in several fields: promoting women's economic and political participation in developing countries, fighting violence against women, supporting women's presence in peace negotiations and recognising their, often problematic, role in conflicts. Finally, she also argued that acting in women's interest in the EU itself was important. However, it is one thing to pronounce general commitments and it is yet another thing to promote women's rights actively. So, in which international context does the EU situate its commitment to women's rights and how is this commitment realised in practice?

Women's Rights: A Global Challenge and a Fundamental Value of the EU

Daily reality for many women around the world is much more cumbersome than for men. This is related to certain structural inequalities linked to gender. Some estimates show that 70% of the poor are female. These women are often marginalised on the job market, but they are also frequently victims of violence because of their vulnerable situation, which is characterised by a lower level of education than that of men. Amnesty International talks in this context about the “gender trap”: women, violence and poverty are often situated in a vicious circle from which it is hard, or even impossible, to escape. Promoting women's rights is therefore not only a question of morality but also a question of economic development. The tension between these two motivations is obvious: is the promotion of women's rights a goal in its own right or does it have an economic motivation? Whatever the answer, the two arguments go often together, as in a European Commission communication:

“It is widely acknowledged that Gender Equality is not only crucial in itself but is a fundamental human right and a question of social justice. Furthermore, Gender Equality is essential for growth and poverty reduction, and it is key to reaching the Millennium Development Goals.”

This quote shows how the EU defines itself as a protector of gender equality. Equality is a fundamental principle anchored in article 2 of the Treaty on European Union (TEU) and article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. From an article on equal pay in the Treaty of Rome, gender equality has developed into a general approach today, as gender mainstreaming has become the guiding principle of all European policies (see also art. 8 TFEU). This two-level approach (specific policies and gender mainstreaming) also applies to foreign policies. The Strategy for equality between women and men 2010-2015 states the EU's obligation to “contribute towards gender equality and women’s empowerment” in its negotiations with candidate countries and in its dialogue with third countries.

From international obligations to a European strategy

Having declared its support of the United Nations in promoting women's rights repeatedly, the EU commits itself to respect (among others) three landmark documents of the UN: the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW, 1979), the Beijing Action Plan (1995), and the Millenium Development Goals (MDG, 2000). In fact, it was with the commitment of attaining the MDG in mind that the EU adopted the EU Plan of Action on Gender Equality and Women's Empowerment in Development. This document implements the previous strategy (2007) on the same subject and includes 9 specific objectives for the period 2010-2015, among them an ever stronger inclusion of civil society actors. The action plan also wants to increase transparency and for that goal includes an accountability check applying to Member States, the European External Action Service (EEAS) and the EU delegations, who all have to submit annual reports. The recent adoption of the EU strategic framework on human rights and democracy, the first concrete guideline in this domain, will only strengthen what is outlined in the action plan.

How are these principles put into practice? The EU supports most notably specific projects with the goal of changing traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) or forced marriage, often in cooperation with UNICEF. The approach adopted in these projects aims at changing mentalities with the help of community members. This is how it was possible to convince several African communities (in Egypt, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Senegal and Sudan) to abandon FGM. In Senegal, for example, 4000 of 5000 communities practicing FGM have declared their intention to abandon it within a dozen years after projects supported by the EU and other international organisations had been put into practice. Nonetheless, Amnesty International has recently launched a European campaign, “End FGM”, calling on the EU to introduce a concrete strategy to eradicate FGM, even if it has already taken some steps in that direction, such as a European Parliament resolution on the question last June.

Weak funding accompanied by a lack of transparency and accountability

Can we then be satisfied with the selfless devotion of the European Union to women's rights? As the NGO confederation CONCORD argues, the budget for gender equality and women's empowerment is still “extremely low” (5% of the total funding for the programme “Investing in People” between 2007-2010). However, this budget rose for the following period: 37 million euros or 7,5% of the total for 2011-2013. Nonetheless, gender inequalities persist also within the EU, as funding is increasingly spent on external action in the field of women's rights. This is why CONCORD has reminded the EU to include the gender question in the European budget in cooperation with the European Women's Lobby and the WIDE network, underlining that currently only 0,37% of the total budget is spent on this issue.

CONCORD also underlined in its AidWatch2011 that even though the 2010-2015 action plan states that civil society actors should be included in policy implementation more closely, no specifications can be found as for which method will be chosen. Similarly, the EU's commitment to gender mainstreaming and the EEAS' role remain vague. In the same vein, the AidWatch2012 report underlines that the Member States largely do not know the action plan: apart from Spain and Finland, none of the Member States comes close to fulfilling its commitments to the EU in the field; the majority do not even have any funding for gender inequality and women's empowerment in their budgets for development. Finally, the lack of transparency concerning funding and calls for proposals in the EU Delegations persists despite the general commitment to strengthen accountability. This is why several NGOs have asked the EU to reinforce the implementation of the 2010-2015 action plan (not only in form of declarations but also in form of obligations), to ensure civil society participation, to provide sufficient funding and to establish transparent accountability mechanisms.


All in all, it is important to remember that promoting women's rights is motivated by moral and economic arguments at the same time. However, if women's and, more generally, human rights are set under an economic logic, do they not lose their value as fundamental rights? A year after the introduction of the 2010-2015 action plan, the European Commission organised an open consultation with representatives of civil society, the Development Commissioner Andris Piebalgs and Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of UN Women. At this event, the WIDE and CONCORD networks expressed their doubts concerning a model which uses development and gender equality as a means of growth. In contrast, they underlined, growth as such would not be a solution to gender inequality. It would therefore be dangerous to use gender equality and women's empowerment as an argument for economic growth. Even though they are the basis for just and sustainable development, women's rights must remain a cause in their own right.

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Photo sources: "Street Art Shorteditch 01092011 (9)" on Flickr and « Beijing Poster » on WikiGender, displayed on 27 September 2012