Reflections on the 11th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers (11WAMM) meeting

Posted on 29/11/2016
By Diana Atungire-Ocaya

What is the role of civil society in working closely with governments to address the challenge of gender inequality? 

I travelled with this question to the 11th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers meeting (11WAMM) held 7-8 September 2016 in Apia, Samoa.  This triennial Ministerial meeting provides the opportunity for ministers, senior officials, civil society, private sector and partner agencies to discuss critical issues on advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Commonwealth Ministers meet under a number of different themes, but this one on women’s affairs is different. Outside the UN meetings around the Commission on the Status of Women and regional caucuses, there isn’t really anything quite like this opportunity for governments and civil society to talk with each other about how best to advance gender equality.  The last Minister’s meeting I had attended was back in 2013 in Dhaka, Bangladesh.  That conversation with Ministers came at a critical time, when we were two years shy of the beginning of a post-2015 era and taking a critical look at what we had achieved thus far with the Millennium Development Goals.  Civil society had rallied to advance the call for a standalone goal on gender equality.  This was achieved with Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda, and the Commonwealth Foundation can lay some claim to supporting civil society to better articulate clear asks of their Governments.

11WAMM was now taking place a year after we have agreed these global goals, an important juncture for Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers to agree on key priority areas for action within the broad spectrum of what is needed to achieve gender equality.  It is known that governments alone will not achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  The United Nations has made a resounding call for stakeholders to work together.  

In the discussions at 11WAMM, Ministers agreed that gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls is critical to the achievement of the SDGs.  The discussion on an inclusive Commonwealth was important for the context as it offered the possibility of integrating a diverse set of perspectives to achieve women’s economic empowerment. Direct contributions were given by civil society representatives to this Ministerial discussion.  A case in point was the Ministerial discussion on women’s rights and the elimination of violence against women and girls (EVAWG).  The civil society representative from the Pacific, a key discussant for the session, used the platform to put forward a key ask from civil society that ‘all policies and programs on EVAWG use language that is focused on Women’s Human Rights and women’s experience of violence, putting  women survivors at the centre.  This they went on to emphasise should also include interventions that address VAWG to adopt approaches that are rights based, gender responsive and gender transformative. Part of my question on the role of civil society was partly answered at this juncture with civil society offering and proposing evidence based solutions.

This ministerial platform is one way by which Commonwealth countries are domesticating global recommendations into regional and national policies. Inclusivity is a key tool to generate partnerships. Policies should incorporate important lessons learned from the Millennium Development Goals – goals that recognise the importance of better resourcing and platforms to ensure civil society can partner with government.  

In line with key lessons learned, the 11WAMM communique from Ministers, para 15 acknowledges the importance of working with all groups including civil society organisations as key partners. Within the Commonwealth family, the Commonwealth Foundation has the remit to support civil society. The Foundation plays a pivotal role as an intergovernmental Commonwealth organisation with a non-governmental mandate, advancing the partnership between civil society and government and improving people’s participation in development processes.  It is in light of this mandate that the new four-year Strategic Plan 2017-2021 of the Foundation will continue to reflect a deliberate effort to promote gender equality in line with the SDGs.   

Partnerships that include all key stakeholders are key to how we begin to address the challenges we face when working towards the realisation of gender equality.  The reference to civil society organisations makes sense because civil society bring local knowledge, innovative ideas and solutions, provide technical expertise, leverage social and political capital as well as participatory approaches to analyse and solve problems.  Partnership also indicates that no one will be left behind.  However, a mere reference is not nearly enough.  Governments must commit to change and embrace the different voices that can contribute to the process.  

In the end, it is not really about governments, civil servants or private sector working towards the realisation of the SDGs and gender equality, it is about me, you and us collectively bringing about the change for women, girls and society we want to see in our homes, our families, our societies, countries, regions and the world at large.

Diana Atungire-Ocaya is governance programme manager at the Commonwealth Foundation. She attended the 11th Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting from 7-8 September 2016. Photo: Andrew Moore, ‘Clocktower Sunrise’, Flickr CC. 


Bringing civil society into the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting

Every three years, Commonwealth Ministers responsible for women’s affairs meet to discuss progress and challenges relating to gender equality in the Commonwealth. Civil society play an important role in monitoring and assessing governments' progress to achieve gender equality.