European Development Days 2018 closed with a speech from Princess Mary of Denmark. It was followed by a panel discussion on the “five p’s”: people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership.
The 12th edition of the two day conference organized by the European Commission saw 8,700 people in attendance, up from previous years. They came to discuss the main topic of women and girls at the forefront of sustainable development.
In her closing speech, Princess Mary hit on the key topic that education is a human right, and lack of education for girls and women hurts not only women but all of society.
She also pointed out, as did many other speakers during the conference, that child marriage was a big hindrance to the developing world, as it took young women out of school and effectively limited their future role in the economy.
Access to birth control was also an issue. A woman has the right to decide when and where to have a baby and with whom, she said.
Clean and accessible water also affects women, who often have to spend all day getting enough water for their families. A clean water supply would allow many women to move from doing unpaid domestic work to doing paid work in the economy.
“Women’s economic empowerment is essential for the sustainable development of the planet,” she said.
Switching topics slightly, she moved to environmental and social impacts of the fashion industry. She has been active in trying to reshape the industry so it has less of an impact, and pointed out she recently was a patron of the Copenhagen Fashion Summit, which is pushing to change the industry in terms of sustainability and ethics. “All players in the industry need to join forces together,” she said.
In conclusion, she repeated a comment made previously by French President Emmanuel Macron: “There is no planet B.”
Before the conference ended, European Commissioner Neven Mimica met with the press. He explained the EU’s hashtag campaign #SheisWe. He said the people often use the idea of gender equality and women’s rights interchangeably, but the EU aims to show that gender equality is something that affects and can benefit everybody, and is not just for “she” but for all of us.
One of the more heated discussions was on religion, and whether it was a force that benefited women or something to used to keep them in an inferior place. Slovak politician Ján Figeľ, special envoy for the promotion of freedom of religion or belief outside the European Union, opened the discussion by saying that 80 percent of people identified as faithful, and there was no way clear way forward in development without taking religion into account. “Religious leaders are often very influential, sometimes more than politicians. They can be powerful advocates for equal rights,” he said.
Those who said religion holds women back said that it was often used to institutionalize patriarchal structures, but nothing in the religions actually called for that. It was all just interpretation.
Rumee Ahmed, professor of Islamic law at University of British Columbia, said that when religious leaders defend gender inequality by saying it is just our culture, people should be more willing to raise and eyebrow and say, “Oh, really? This is our culture?” And then ask for proof.
Others on his side pointed out that women were depicted in religion as an afterthought, as “spare ribs.” Religion was used as an excuse to deny birth control and to keep women in a submissive role that promoted violence. The situation was worse in relation to the LGBT community.
On the pro side, Nazila Ghanea, associate professor in international human rights law at University of Oxford, said, “Religion has been the key stimulus for equality, fairness and respect.”
The audience was not swayed though. People used a phone app to vote before and after the discussion on whether religion was good for gender equality. At the start 63 percent said no and 37 percent yes. After it shifted to 64.3 percent no and 35.7 percent yes.
Other panels focused on preventing violence against women and girls, women as agents of change, eradicating gender-based violence in emergencies and empowering women and girls for a thriving rural economy.
Another main part of the European Development Days was a space for NGOs to present their efforts and network.
A key message from the conference was that the EU needs to approach developing nations as a partner and listen. “Who are we to pretend that we’re right on everything?” President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker said when the conference opened.