The Women Deliver conference is a highlight on the calendar for many in the international development sector. Once every 3 years it brings together thousands of gender equality activists; global leaders, campaigners at non-profits, government officials – you name it – to have one big conversation on the progress we’ve made on women and girls’ rights.
And, at this year’s opening, when Justin Trudeau took the stage with first ever female president of Ethiopia Sahle-Work Zewde and two other heads of state, I thought, I’m definitely in the right place.
But it also struck me, it’s all very well for the people in the room, the 8,000 or so who are lucky enough to attend, but what does this conversation mean to everyone else? What long-term impact can it have for those on the ground fighting for equality every day? Can it really change anything?
Over what was an extremely inspiring week at this whirlwind of a conference, I would say definitely yes. Here are my main highlights and what they mean for the girls’ rights movement.
Youth leading the march
We already know the next generation have the power to drive this movement forward – even put an end to inequality altogether. And at Women Deliver, they really showed their power, taking to the stages and proving they’re already leading the march.
There were nearly 1,500 young people at the conference, and youth presence was clear throughout, with a young voice on almost every panel I heard.
Take the opening plenary, where youth campaigner Natasha Mwansa from Zambia shared the stage with four heads of state and outshone them all.
“Can I stand?” She said as she began to speak. “I feel more powerful when I stand.”
We need gender equality and we need this reflected in national priorities
She called for girls and young people to be empowered so they can get involved in decisions that affect them, as well as higher budgets allocated to addressing gender inequality.
“We can’t have girls being married off. We can’t have girls not accessing education. No. We need gender equality and we need this reflected in national priorities,” she said, winning a standing ovation from the room and those on the stage with her.
We also brought with us our very own powerful cohort of 30 young activists, who took to Women Deliver’s various stages. They shared their stories of working every day for equality in their communities.
They spoke about sexual harassment in the streets near their homes, and how they’re helping build safer cities. They spoke about girls’ education and their own struggles to overcome stereotypes to get to where they are today. They spoke about the importance of male allies for gender equality.
My favourite moment was when one of our advocates, Fatu, challenged First Lady of Sierra Leone Fatima Bio on stage, saying that the new free education policy doesn’t go far enough, and is still excluding some of the most vulnerable girls.
Girls get equal power
One of the focuses of the Girls Get Equal campaign is getting girls equal representation in the corridors of power. Women are still underrepresented across the world, in politics, in boardrooms. And it’s time we changed this.
The rest of the world seems to think this is pretty important too, and power was actually the theme of the Women Deliver conference, with many sessions focusing on this.
“Seeing is believing. It’s hard to imagine being someone if you can’t see it. That’s why diversity is so important,” said former Prime Minister of New Zealand Helen Clark, emphasising the importance of role models at one event I attended.
We need to smash stereotypes which limit our strength
We even had our own Power Party, a session to launch our new Taking the Lead research which details views from 10,000 girls on leadership and what holds them back.
It shows that girls want to lead – they have the confidence in themselves. But they’re worried about how the world will receive them. They fear they’ll face derision and harassment for daring to lead.
“We know from this research 62% of girls believe in themselves. But we need society to believe in us too. We need to smash stereotypes which limit our strength,” said Erika at our event, one of our youth advocates from Ecuador.
Commitments for girls’ rights
A few solid commitments were also announced at Women Deliver, pushing forward progress.
Justin Trudeau pledged to increase funding for women’s and girls’ health globally, allocating $1.4 billion annually. This will make Canada a leading contributor to this cause.
How will you use your power?
“There is no silver bullet on gender equality. We need to take action on a whole range of issues if we’re to change the status quo,” he said.
Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta also committed to shine a spotlight on sexual and reproductive health rights of women and girls, especially at the upcoming International Conference on Population and Development to be held in Nairobi later this year.
At the closing of the conference, CEO Katja Iverson asked those in the room, how will you use your power? Asking everyone to commit to take something forward: a project, an idea, a conversation – to work even harder towards the shared goal of a gender equal world.
I’m sharing my power by continuing to tell the stories of girls across the globe, by raising awareness of the injustices they face and how they’re fighting back. By continuing to push for change.
How will you share yours?