The Role of Foreign Policy in Advancing Gender Equality: addressing the challenges, pushbacks and obstacles faced by women

Nicosia 26 October 2021
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As delivered by Bjørn Berge, Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe




President of the House of Representatives,

Distinguished speakers and observers,


Next week will mark the 71st anniversary of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Since it came into force, it has helped build a system that is unique for Europe and essential for us as individuals – in safeguarding and promoting the fundamental rights that we too often take for granted.

And for the past 60 years, Cyprus has been a much-valued member of the Council of Europe, playing its role in upholding those rights across our continent.

This is an important anniversary and I congratulate Cyprus.

The European Convention gives women rights and protections that no other foreign policy tool has ever achieved – and no other continent has ever attained.

The Council of Europe’s human rights’-centred approach has dignity and equality at its core.

It uses multilateral cooperation to shape, deploy and monitor the tools that put those rights to work in our everyday lives:

Deploying multilateral action in the interests of the 840 million Europeans who live on our continent.

But let me be more concrete, over the years, this is what we have done to help advance gender equality.

Today, the best and most relevant tool we have is our Istanbul Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

Recognising that these issues affect millions of women across our 47 member states, 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, it criminalises specific offences, including stalking and forced marriage –

But what is most important is that the governments of each of its 34 states parties have changed domestic law to ensure that the terms of this international, gold-standard treaty are met, and women are better protected.

But in any struggle there are set-backs.

Some have sought to undermine and discredit it.

However, we have mobilised to the effect that other states are in fact in the process of joining the Istanbul Convention – most recently Liechtenstein and the Republic of Moldova. Let us hope Ukraine, Latvia and the UK will complete that journey very soon.

But make no mistake.

They are right to join.

- Because this treaty provides protection that no government alone can match.

- Higher standards of protection.

- A unique, independent, international monitoring mechanism to assist compliance.

And last but not least, it provides a platform for international cooperation that allows perpetrators to be brought to justice.

This is multilateralism at its best– and it works.

But, dear friends, it is just one of many, different gender equality initiatives that we have undertaken over the course of many years.

Let me give you three additional examples.

First on female genital mutilation, our member states adopted a declaration in 2017 asking European governments to support victims and those at risk.

This included recognising female genital mutilation as grounds for international protection, helping women and girls to flee from danger.

Since then, a number of countries have taken measures to prevent and detect this crime and to gather the important data and information that leads, in turn, to us better being able to combat it.

Secondly, on a woman’s right to equal pay, our Social Charter has been crystal clear for the last 50 years.

And there has been progress – but certainly not enough.

So, earlier this year our Committee of Ministers made recommendations to help member states improve, where they have fallen short on their commitments.

And already, I note, governments have reacted with positive steps, including the introduction of workplace gender equality indexes and gender wage mapping.

Lastly, our second and current Gender Equality Strategy addresses a range of key challenges.

High on that list is the need to prevent and combat the gender stereotypes and sexism that reinforce all aspects of inequality between women and men.

Complementing this, all our 47 member States adopted another recommendation, providing the first ever international definition of sexism.

It calls on national authorities to counter hate speech online and offline, promote gender inclusive language, and ensure equality in the way that women and men are represented in a range of contexts.

And it asks them to promote workplace equality and tackle sexism across the public sector.

At the same time, regular reporting from the Council of Europe’s Gender Equality Commission is designed to help keep up the momentum for change.

The Gender Equality Strategy also includes a focus on equal access to justice, gender mainstreaming in policy decisions, and measures to protect the rights of migrant, refugee and asylum-seeking women and girls:

A group that are particularly disadvantaged and whose situation this Conference will rightly address.

Dear friends,

We all know that progress towards equality is uneven and that there are those who want to roll back years – or more accurately – the gains that have been made.

We need to do the contrary. Do even more.

As so often, this boils down to a matter of political will.

You have the first-hand insights and experience that are central to the work we do, and to the wider foreign policy challenges.

I hope that through this conference we will all become wiser and more determined than ever before.


Thank you for your attention.