Progress towards gender equality is not even and more needs to be done, stated on Tuesday the Council of Europe’s deputy Secretary General Bjorn Berge, addressing a conference in Nicosia.
The conference, entitled “The role of foreign policy in advancing gender equality: Addressing the challenges, pushbacks and obstacles faced by women” was organised by the Cypriot Foreign Affairs Ministry in partnership with the Council of Europe in the context of events celebrating 60 years since Cyprus joined the Council of Europe.
Berge said it all boils down to political will, while Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Christodoulides and President of Parliament, Annita Demetriou noted that despite the progress achieved in Cyprus, there is still a long way to go.
In his speech, Berge of Norway praised Cyprus for its 60th anniversary of being a “much valued” member of the CoE.
The Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women (‘Istanbul Convention’), which came into force in 2014, is the first legally binding international instrument on preventing and combating violence against women and girls at the international level. Berge said it provides women with “added protection which no other foreign policy tool has ever achieved. And no other continent has every attained”.
Noting the convention is the “best and most relevant tool” for preventing and combatting violence against women and domestic violence, he said that it affects millions of women throughout the CoE 47 member states and its “aims are clear and direct, to prevent violence against women, to protect those who become victims and to ensure the prosecution of perpetrators”.
In addition, said the CoE Deputy SG, it criminalises specific offences including stalking and forced marriage.
But what it’s most important is that the governments of 34 states’ bodies have changed domestic law “to ensure that the terms of this international gold standard treaty are met and women are protected”.
However, Berge said there are setbacks and some “seek to undermine and discredit the Istanbul Convention”. He said that other states are in the process of joining the convention, Lichtenstein and the Republic of Moldova and hoped that Ukraine, Latvia and the UK will complete that journey very soon.
Berge referred to the advancements made towards women’s rights and said on the issue of female genital mutilation, member states adopted a declaration in 2017 asking European governments to support victims and those at risk.
On women’s right to equal pay, he said the social charter has been crystal clear and that there has been progress but certainly not enough. Earlier this year the Committee of Ministers made a recommendation to help member states improve when they fall short of their commitments.
At the same time, regular reporting from the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Commission is designed to help keep up the momentum for a change.
The Gender Equality Strategy for 2018-2023 includes the focus on equal access to justice, gender mainstreaming and policy decisions and measures to protect the rights of migrants, refugees and asylum-seeking women and girls, a group that are particularly disadvantaged.
“We all know that progress towards equality is not even and that there are those who want to roll back the years and gains that have been made,” said Berge. However, he underlined “we need to do the contrary, even more and so often this boils down to the matter of political will. I hope that through this conference we will all become wiser and determined than ever before, he concluded.
Cyprus Minister of Foreign Affairs
On his part, Minister of Foreign Affairs Nikos Christodoulides said our ambition is for Cyprus to become in the near future a model in the region on issues related to gender equality.
Addressing the conference, he said following decades of steady progress in the pursuit of gender equality, the COVID19 pandemic has unfortunately resulted in a backlash against women’s rights and has served to further reveal persisting inequalities, by uncovering weaknesses in existing mechanisms aimed at promoting the rights of women and girls. At the same time, conflict, unrest, and natural disasters have given rise to particularly worrisome situations, like for example in Afghanistan, a dark reminder of the current realities.
The minister underlined that to “safeguard women`s right’s we need collective action. The responsibility for the promotion and acceleration of women`s rights rests primarily with all States, and therefore effective action needs also to be undertaken within the multilateral framework”.
Foreign policy can and should be used as a diplomatic and political tool in the promotion of women’s rights, said Christodoulides, “complementing national, regional and international efforts in this direction”. Political leadership needs to play an essential role in this process, meaning that the importance of placing gender equality at the core of foreign policy priorities cannot be stressed enough, he noted.
At the same time, Christodoulides said that mainstreaming gender in foreign policy is fundamental for the formulation of inclusive policies, whilst at the same time it sends out a strong message at both national and international level that women’s rights are first and foremost, human rights”.
Regarding Cyprus, he said that “we have made good headway in recent years on the road to gender equality here in Cyprus too. Amongst other benchmarks achieved, we have in recent years ratified the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence and our Parliament has voted a Law on Violence against Women, based on the Convention. The Cyprus Parliament has also voted a Law on combating sexism, based on the relevant Council of Europe Recommendation”.
The Cypriot FM said “despite the undeniable progress we have achieved, we know that we still have a long way to go and we are determined to redouble our efforts until we achieve the goal of gender equality and eradicate all forms of discrimination”.
Christodoulides said that gender equality and the promotion of women`s rights “must be included, on their own merits, as issues of priority in our daily routines and they must be addressed holistically and horizontally, through actions in various sectors, across government, including through foreign policy”.
Concluding, he said “our ambition is for Cyprus to become in the near future a model in the region on issues related to gender equality”, contributing substantially to the promotion of regional and international cooperation in this important field.
House President Annita Demetriou
In her address, Demetriou said the adoption of a holistic and horizontal approach to gender mainstreaming in foreign policy has already yielded some positive results. The recent appointment of two prominent female Ambassadors in the permanent mission of the Republic of Cyprus to the UN Office at Geneva and the permanent representation of the Republic of Cyprus to the EU is definitely a positive step forward and a testament to the existing political will and commitment.
However, Demetriou said “the glass ceiling is cracked but not broken. The path to gender parity in foreign policy is long” and urged all to use the current momentum to turn the crisis into an opportunity and to address particular challenges, which impede Cypriot women from building a career as diplomats and from engaging in peace-making and conflict resolution processes.
Despite growing evidence that peace agreements are more inclusive, sustainable and durable, when women participate in peace negotiations, women’s particular needs, views and concerns are sidelined in the formulation and implementation of foreign policy decisions.
She noted that the role of women is still undervalued in peace-building and post-conflict reconstruction and said “gender equality must be an integral part of policy responses to crises, as their repercussions are never gender blind”.
Demetriou said Cyprus ranks 21st on the Gender Equality Index with Cypriot women being underrepresented in all decision-making structures and leadership and they encounter multiple constraints in assuming diplomatic careers. “Women are deprived of equal opportunities to enter diplomacy because of persistent gender stereotypes and bias. Diplomacy is an uneven playing field as women are perceived as not suitable or ill-equipped for assuming these positions, while there are higher expectations from them.”
Cypriot women shoulder more care responsibilities and unpaid work than men and have limited access to established leadership networks, said the House President.
Demetriou said that strong emphasis must be put not only on increasing the number of women in leadership positions, but primarily on transforming the gendered nature of diplomacy.
She pledged that in her dual capacity as the first-ever female Parliament President and WPL Ambassador on behalf of the Cyprus House of Representatives, she is “committed to keeping gender equality high on the political agenda and initiating progressive legislative reforms that advocate gender equality”. I aspire to portray a positive female role model to lead the way for more women in leadership and decision-making structures, she concluded.