Some 9,000 participants, among them exhibitors, speakers, project organisers and visitors populated the European Development Days 2018 under the timely motto She is We. Visitors queued for long times to get into the spacious premises of the Tour and Taxis complex on 5 and 6 June. Security was strict and queuing continued until after passing the reception desk. But it was definitely a worthwhile wait. A string of high-level conferences, workshops and the EDD Village with a wide variety of booths interspersed with meeting and rest areas created a conducive environment for exchanges on policies and practices. Commission President Juncker was one of the speakers of the opening ceremony.

Given the long wait to get access to the premises, most people probably missed the opening events in the principal plenaries.

The opening ceremony

But by 11h, when the official opening was programmed, most visitors will have made it into the venue areas. Because of the presence of many Heads of State and Government and other VIPs the ceremony was projected into other large halls filled mostly to capacity. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker was among the first to speak in the long string of celebrities speaking up for pushing forward equal rights for women and girls around the world.

Paul Kagame, President of RwandaHe was followed by royalty from Belgium and Spain. Mathilde, Queen of the Belgians, ever engaged in charity work, spoke out strongly in favour of the empowerment of women and girls. She is particularly engaged with the UN Spotlight Initiative against violence against women, strongly supported by the EU.

Paul Kagame, President of Rwanda shared experience about his country's programme to empower women and girls and overcome the still vividly felt effects of the genocide.

Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca, Prime Minister of Malta brandished the pay gap between men and women in Europe, which still accounts for an average of almost 20% lower pay for women and even roll back moves in the last 10 years. The status of women was worse now in 12 European countries compared to 10 years ago and some 55% of women suffered some form of sexual harrassment, totally at odds with European and universal values of human rights. She appealed to walk the talk "knowing that a thing is right and doing the right thing"!

Amina J. Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the UN, rightRoch Marc Christian Kaboré, President of Burkina Faso emphasised his country's practical steps towards ensuring equal status to women throught emphasis on education, health care provision, the right to own land and participate in all aspects of political life in the country.

In less than five years primary education achieved now the same level for girls and boys, but girls still lagged in secondary education. Improved access to credit for women, also thanks to a new 50 mio EUR project with funding by the European Development Fund (EDF) was another practical step in the right direction.

George Manneh Weah, President of Liberia, reported about the obligation in his party to have women in half the elected officer position and that he had appointed women to deputy inspector general of the police, deputy chief of staff and several ministerial positions. His government was also reviewing legislation to remove any discriminatory texts against women.

Amina Mohammed, Deputy Secretary General of the United Nations and long-term promoter of women's rights reported about the Spotlight Initiative against violence against women.

Queen Mathilde (right) and Amina Mohanned (left) promoted the joint UN-EU Spotlight Initiative against violence against women at a special boothThe UN was practising what it preached and had achieved gender parity in senior management positions, but the challenges remained in many policy areas and on the ground. Worldwide the gender pay gap was still 23% for women exercising the same job as men. The World Bank had recently estimated that economic growth of 164 billion USD could be achieved by equal treatment and better involvement of women in the economy.

Angélique Kidjo, a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, and the composer Youssou N'Dour threw in a energetic performance to shake up the protocol. Was that an inspiration for Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament, to call for a Marshall Plan for Africa?

Mahamadou Issoufou, President of Niger, reported on steady progress in girl education from a low starting point. He assured the audience that indicators were getting better in 2017, e.g. in terms of reduced child mortality and fertility and access to education. The objective of the government was to achieve parity in gender education at least to the age of 16 years and further reduce female poverty, still estimated at a whopping 75%.

Raising women's participation in decision-making: engaging men as change agents

Dr. Isatou Touray first female candidate for president of the GambiaFollowing on from the official opening, one of the major sessions featured an interesting panel discussing about how to increase the role of women in decision making.

On the podium were Michel Croizé of Sodexo Bénélux talking about their gender programme, Dr. Isatou Touray, the Minister for Trade and Development in the Gambia and first female candidate for the presidency of the country, Frans Timmermans, first Vice-President of the European Commission from the Netherlands, Carin Jämtin in charge of the Swedish Development Cooperation (SIDA) and Diwa Samad from the office of the Afghan Prime Minister and one of the young leaders highlighted at this year's EDD.

Much of the debate focused on the amazing amount of clever arguments on YouTube and other social media which masquerade as normality but effectively defend male priviledges and push back hard against women's rights. The panelists gave plenty of examples from their own good and bad experience when striving for gender equity.

Frans Timmermans, first Vice-President of the European Commission from the Netherlands, Carin Jämtin in charge of the Swedish Development Cooperation - SIDAThey all agreed that it was important to speak up and be vocal about the importance of gender, promote concrete projects, not only talk and push for good educational materials and practice. Among the practical arguments and suggestions for moving forward were, e.g.

  • use the existing evidence e.g. that mixed teams of men and women tend to be more engaged and satisfied and have better results than single-gender teams.
  • use the statistics to illustrate the case
  • seek male champions supporting women in elections and other responsible positions
  • network intensely
  • invest in education
  • use the media to create new role models
  • frame the claim for gender equity in the context of international treaties, thus using the wider political framework which is more difficult to attack than an isolated voice.

From our own gender studies in fishing communities we would add as well: make the often hidden productive work of women in fisheries visible and strive to recognise their often managerial roles, when men are absent at sea. Tailor support schemes to their specific needs, which often converge on access to education, health and child care, access to credit and to land and other property titles.

The EDD Global Village and workshops

Throughout the two days, in parallel to the large number of plenaries, workshops and side events, countless discussions and networking went on in and around the EDD Global Village.

Given the cost of a booth and a workshop room, EU funded projects and bigger organisations dominated the village and the workshops.

Having said this, there were more event and opportunities for debate and exchange on offer, often in parallel, than one person or even a small group could take part in. So the programme forced many hard choices.

Just to give a flavour of the diversity, one of the workshops addressed the opportunities of digital media and the importance of women journalists and activists to tell their stories and offer gendered views of topics of general importance.

Another organised participants in smaller groups to stimulate greater participation in discussing issues on moving creativity and civic engagement forward through inclusive education.

Yet other workshops explored women's leadership in African farmers' and rural producers' organisations and financing gender equality, a very topical issue we also encounter all the time in our work focused on women in small-scale fisheries.

The discussions went on until late - quite a useful place to share also the multiple experiences of Mundus maris.

Long queues to get in More queuing at the reception