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Tag: Women’s rights

Power to the People: the Commonwealth Foundation at CHOGM 2022

After two years of delay and postponement, of anticipation and frustration, the Commonwealth Heads of Government meetings (CHOGM) finally took place in Kigali in late June.

For the Foundation, this was the culmination of years of preparation and planning, most especially for the People’s Forum—the largest gathering of civil society in the Commonwealth system that has been a fixture of the CHOGM calendar for almost two decades.

The Foundation also took the lead in convening a half-day of roundtable discussions between Foreign Ministers and members of Commonwealth civil society. An outcome video of the Forum, which was broadcast at the official CHOGM Foreign Ministers Meeting, and also played at the Roundtable itself, can be accessed here.

‘What role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?’

The People’s Forum 2022: Our Health, Our Planet, Our Future

The People’s Forum 2022 set itself the ambitious task of asking—and trying to answer—the biggest and most important questions of our age: how do we harness the best of humanity—the forces of love, compassion, equality and justice­—to advance our common future and protect our planet? How do we work together to build or re-fashion our institutions so that they support a world that leaves no one behind? And what role could—or should—the Commonwealth of Nations play in these vital steps towards a better world for all its people?

Along with our partners at the Rwanda Governance Board, the Foundation took advantage of the two-year delay to shape a strong and streamlined programme that focused on what is front and centre for so many people of the Commonwealth: health, climate and freedom of expression. The Critical Conversations online event series, launched by the Foundation in 2020 after the first CHOGM postponement, proved to be a gamechanger: giving us experience and confidence in new formats and approaches and expanding our network of activists and leaders across all Commonwealth regions.

‘In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC?’

In relation to developing the Forum sessions on climate for example, the Foundation was able to draw on several different events  organised as part of the Critical Conversations series, including one on small states and climate justice held in September 2021 just before COP26, and another on the difficult issue of reparations for climate damage, held in February of this year. Our main climate session at the People’s Forum was explicitly practical: looking ahead to COP27 in November and to what the Commonwealth could and should be doing to advance the interests of those most affected.  Leaders and advocates from the Commonwealth’s small island developing states left the Forum in no doubt about the urgency of the challenge and the moral duty of the Commonwealth, its member countries and its institutions, to demonstrate genuine solidarity through concrete commitments.

The Forum’s sessions on health also benefited from multiple Critical Conversations events the Foundation has convened since early 2020 which shed a bright light on the parlous state of so many national health systems and the apparent incapacity of international systems and institutions (including, disappointingly, the Commonwealth itself) to deliver practical support. At the Forum, the issue of universal health coverage (UHC)—the guarantee that people can access quality health services without facing financial hardship—was front and centre, with panellists interrogating the role that civil society might play in pushing for UHC and the strong, resilient, and equitable health systems that must be at its heart.

Any useful discussion around health and climate must address the thorny question of finance: how do we get the money needed to fund desperately overdue measures aimed at protecting countries and communities from the worst effects of climate change? In a time of growing debt burdens, especially across low and middle-income countries, who should be paying for better primary health care and the other elements of UHC? In the case of climate, Forum participants strongly took up the cause of the Commonwealth’s smaller and more vulnerable Member States, for whom the loss and damage caused by climate change is presenting unique—and in some cases existential—challenges. Across both issues participants were united in their conviction that the Commonwealth has a unique role to play in bringing together those who hold the power to deliver support, relieve debt burdens, and provide restitution. A failure to take up that role with determination would be, in the eyes of Commonwealth civil society, a clear rejection of the very ideas that the Commonwealth stands for.

‘a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens’

The Commonwealth Charter affirms that freedom of expression—including media freedom—is essential to the flourishing of democratic societies and a basic condition for development. Sadly, this is an area where too many Commonwealth countries are slipping behind. Building on a previous Critical Conversations event, the Forum engaged in a vigorous, at times tense discussion of freedom of expression: why does it matter and how can it be protected? What can the Commonwealth, its member states and institutions, do to support and advance free and responsible media? There was clear agreement that no country can afford to be complacent: direct threats to journalists and freedom of expression are real and growing. Civil society has an important role to play in championing the proposed Commonwealth Principles on Freedom of Expression that could help shore up freedom of expression and break the culture of silence that provides cover for its steady erosion.

The final session of the Forum, A Commonwealth for All’, set itself the ambitious goal of provoking deep discussion and personal reflection about where we are now, and how the Commonwealth—its Member States, its institutions, and its people—can help inspire real and meaningful change. It was aimed at all those who care about the Commonwealth; those who have a perspective on its past; and those who have a stake in its future. The Forum Chair participated in the event alongside the Commonwealth Secretary-General. Both were asked to comment on a provocative video of highlights from the Foundation’s three-part mini-series on the future of the Commonwealth. The passion and conviction of speakers at this final event—and of the many participants who contributed to the discussion—left no doubt that a vibrant and principled Commonwealth is critical to the future of its citizens. The ten-year anniversary of the Charter, which will be commemorated next year, was singled out by many as an opportunity to galvanise action for a reinvigorated Commonwealth.

Weaving together all Forum sessions was the idea of participatory governance: the idea that the involvement of people in their governance is critical to democracy and democratic legitimacy; the idea that citizens have a central role to play in helping to shape policies and decisions that affect their lives. Forum participants acknowledged that participatory governance is a work in progress right across the Commonwealth. We can learn from examples of innovation that have delivered tangible results. But we must be brave in pushing for more meaningful involvement of citizens across every area of public life.

‘How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?’

Civil Society and the Foreign Ministers’ Roundtable

The roundtable between participants of the People’s Forum and Foreign Ministers is now an established fixture on the CHOGM calendar: a powerful embodiment of the Commonwealth identity as an organisation of people—and not just of states. For the Foundation, it is an unambiguous exercise in participatory governance—the unifying thread of the People’s Forum.

The 2022 Roundtable was widely proclaimed to be a huge success with the largest-ever number of Ministers in attendance, including a substantial contingent of Foreign Ministers and excellent representation from Commonwealth civil society and accredited organisations. The event was Chaired by the Rwanda Foreign Minister and moderated by me. The seating arrangement, large round tables where government and civil society sat together, and the moderator’s insistence that each take turns in contributing, guaranteed a lively and at times passionate debate. Among the wide range of matters discussed, gender equality and freedom of expression stood out as issues that everyone in the room—government and civil society alike—cared deeply about.

Towards the Future

On the current schedule, we now have less than two years to go until CHOGM 2024. While our future is uncertain, we must brace ourselves for the likelihood that many of the challenges discussed in Kigali will be unresolved. How can we measure progress? And how can we push for meaningful action as global economic headwinds turn against us?

The CHOGM communique—which sets out a bold and ambitious plan of action—should be front and centre. However, many participants in the Forum pointed out the danger of the Communique becoming irrelevant unless Member States commit to measuring their actions against the goals they have set before reporting to CHOGM 2024. Our analysis of the sentiment coming out from the Forum indicates that progress on climate could be usefully measured by the practical steps that Commonwealth countries and institutions take to protect small island developing countries. Progress on freedom of expression is even easier to measure: the Commonwealth must take the final step to adopt a robust set of principles on media freedom that comply with current international human rights standards and put in place mechanisms to monitor implementation. Progress on health requires concerted action to break the debt deadlock that is strangling efforts to deliver universal health care in so many of the Commonwealth’s low and middle-income countries.

So much more could and should be done. But we must start somewhere if the Commonwealth is to hold its head high. Let us decide to hold ourselves—and each other—to account. The people of the Commonwealth deserve no less.

Dr Anne T. Gallagher AO is Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Commonwealth women’s rights organisations: action on gender equality needed now more than ever

Women’s rights and women-led organisations have called on Member States to take action on the Commonwealth’s Four Priorities on Gender Equality in light of the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which, they argue, has exacerbated gender inequalities the world over. 

The call comes during the 65th session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the principal UN organ promoting gender equality and the empowerment of women. 

Civil society representatives revisited recommendations made during the 12WAMM Civil Society Roundtable — which took place prior to the pandemic in September 2019. The group agreed that many of their recommendations remain the same but are by now, in a post-Covid world, more pressing than ever.

Involve me and I learn

When I received an email from the Commonwealth Foundation inviting me to a roundtable on women and peace—I was ecstatic. Finally, I was going to have my say on peacebuilding at an international forum. On reviewing the profiles of the attendees, however, I soon became anxious; parliamentarians, presidential advisors, and international peace activists were set to attend, and I thought it best to keep my mouth shut, and resolve to listen and learn. But the meeting’s strength was drawn from its diversity: there were women from over 11 countries who had worked at very different levels of peace advocacy. The dialogue turned out to be one of the most important moments in my career as a peacebuilder.

I am involved in community policing in Kenya, where I do my best to bring communities and police together to cooperate and maintain peace and security. My work is primarily focused on the ‘forgotten’ parts of rural Kenya, where violent cattle theft and revenge attacks are the order of the day. I never suspected that my efforts would be recognised at the international level.

‘I noticed how the role of colour in conflict serves as an illuminating metaphor for the seeming vacuity of group differences’

My views and opinions were keenly listened to and acknowledged and I was asked many questions about my line of work. I explained that peace is impossible without the presence of independent security forces in the areas of Kenya considered to be violent conflict zones. This is why we must enlist the help of security agencies and cooperate closely with the police in our peace efforts and mediation strategies. In Baringo, for example, the establishment of Community Policing Committees and Forums has enabled locals to give the police crucial intelligence information. Plans to steal from or mete out revenge on communities have been thwarted as the police are able to swing into action without delay.

‘… our collective aim is to have women present at the negotiating table, and I now feel confident that young women should be accorded a seat’

The rich knowledge and wisdom in the room accounted for more than I can write about here, but one thing that struck me was that wherever you are in the world, conflict is similar—it is always one community of identity or ideology against another. I noticed how the role of colour in conflict serves as an illuminating metaphor for the seeming vacuity of group differences: in Kenya, during the 2007/2008 deadly post-election violence, the colours blue and orange were used to identify what side a person was on; in Northern Ireland, colour codes were used to identify Catholics and Protestants; and in Sierra Leone, the situation was so dire that you could not access services from government offices while adorning clothes of the ‘wrong’ colour.

As peacebuilders, young women are often alone in the field, so I am pleased to say that I made meaningful intergenerational connections during the meeting, including with a seasoned peace activist who has since become my mentor in the field. I decided to set aside the African rule of keeping distance from your elders and instead focus on creating reciprocal friendships regardless of title and age: for our collective aim is to have women present at the negotiating table, and I now feel confident that young women should be accorded a seat.

‘Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.’ ⁠— Benjamin Franklin

Elzeever Odhiambo is a community peace activist in Kenya. 

Commonwealth civil society roundtable at the 12th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting

At the 11th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting (11WAMM), held in September 2016 hosted by the Government of Samoa, Kenya was selected to host the 12th Women Affairs Ministers Meeting (12 WAMM).

The meeting will be held on 19-20 September 2019 in Nairobi, Kenya with the theme: ‘From Commitment to Action: Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for Sustainable Development.’

Kenya’s Big Four Agenda is effectively aligned to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, at the continental level with Africa’s Agenda 2063 ‘The Africa We Want’, and at the national level, it is anchored to the Kenya Vision 2030.

In 2020, the global community will mark the 25th anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (Beijing +25) and the fifth year of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  Moreover, the Commonwealth Heads of Governments Meeting (CHOGM) and Commonwealth People’s Forum (CPF) will be held in Kigali, Rwanda in June 2020.

In consideration of several parallel processes in support of Beijing +25 Platform for Action, amplifying the voices of women’s rights and women-led organisations will be prioritised. In this spirit and as a way to contribute to the advocacy and discourse on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the lead up to 12 WAMM and Beijing +25, the Commonwealth Foundation will organise a civil society roundtable in partnership with the Government of Kenya as the host country for 12WAMM on 16-17 September 2019. The Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA-Kenya) will be the co-convenor of the roundtable.

In consultation with FIDA-Kenya and the Government of the Republic of Kenya, the criteria for the selection of organisations and participants from across the Commonwealth in the civil society roundtable is as follows:

  • Representative networks and organisations working at the regional level which are already members of the women’s major group[1] and/or actively representing civic voices of women throughout the Commonwealth. This includes those that are working on policy and advocacy on the four priorities of the Commonwealth: Women’s economic empowerment, Women in leadership, Ending violence against women and girls, and Gender and climate change  
  • Organisations and/or networks involved in national reviews and regional consultations on the implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action (BPFA) and/or involved in the development of shadow reports of civil society consultations and/ or in annual consultation of Commonwealth National Women’s Machineries
  • Organisations and/or networks showcasing intersectionality in their membership: women from rural areas, young people and elderly generations, less privileged socio-economic backgrounds, among others, and are inclusive of voices in the margins/less heard voices in their internal governance
  • Representatives of women in media and leading feminist thinkers who have participated in critical reviews progress on women’s rights and gender equality, informing the Beijing +20 debate including feminist economists who can support governments with advice on accelerating results.

The Women’s Major Group is self-organised and facilitated by a team of 8 Organising Partners, including WEDO. The WMG has the mandate to facilitate women’s human rights and gender equality perspectives into UN policy processes on sustainable development. In recent years, the WMG program and project has been designed to influence two distinct phases in global sustainable development: (1) finalising a universal Post-2015 Development agenda that is grounded in national and regional realities, in particular realities for women; and (2) ensuring its robust implementation at the national, regional and global levels.

Expected outcomes of the roundtable:

  • Civic voice collectives across the Commonwealth effectively communicate policy priorities and recommendations on accelerating results for the delivery of SDG 5 to governments including recommendations to address the intersectionality of gender
  • Sustained engagement of civic voice collectives across the Commonwealth in the Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting process with the active co-convening role of women’s rights and women-led organisations in the host country.
Download the latest update


Women with disabilities advocate for their rights in Geneva

In February 2019, the Women with Disabilities India Network (WWDIN), coordinated by the Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, submitted an Alternative Report on Article 6 of the UNCRPD to the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). Our report was prepared in response to the Initial Report submitted by the Government of India on progress towards meeting its commitments to the UNCRPD. In April, a team of four women with disabilities from WWDIN travelled to Geneva to present the report’s findings. This was the first such engagement of its kind for women with disabilities in India.

The Alternative Report is the product of two years of data collection (2017 and 2018) from consultations with 441 women with disabilities in 23 states of India. Women with disabilities are one of the most vulnerable and invisible sections of society in India. Women with disabilities are marginalised in different ways related to education, livelihood and access to health and other services leading to different forms of gender and disability-based violence within families and communities.

‘…the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls’

The report appreciates the positive initiatives taken by the Government of India such as the passage of the Right to Persons with Disabilities Act 2016. The India Country Report has extensive listings of legal provisions, schemes and programmes for persons with disabilities in India. However, little data is provided about differential access women with disabilities have to these provisions. One of the reasons for this is that there is no coordination on issues of women with disabilities, who are relegated to the Disability Department by the Women and Child Development Department and often times overlooked. As a result, women with disabilities continue to remain far from achieving either de-facto or de-jure equality. The recognition of the legal capacity of women is partial, and this can be seen in old and even new legislation such as the newly introduced Mental Health Care Act (2017).

The Women with Disabilities India Network deliver the alternative report in La Salle des Emirates in the Palace of Nations, Geneva

Our research revealed that women with disabilities are consistently marginalised in education and employment, with low enrolment and work force participation. An insufficient number of schools in rural areas, where the vast majority of disabled people live, affects access to education; in particular, there are low enrolment numbers for girls with disabilities.

‘In practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.’

Education of disabled girls is also affected by factors like poverty, adolescence and puberty; the distance of educational institutions from home also has a specific effect on girls as they are thought to be more vulnerable during long commutes than their male counterparts. The distance between home and school along with poor commuting facilities is a crucial factor in determining dropout rates among disabled girls from educational institutions. This is compounded by lack of accessible infrastructural and residential facilities.

Persons with disabilities protest for their rights in India

Our findings show that women with disabilities are also particularly vulnerable to violence both in domestic and public spaces. Much of this violence is undocumented and unrecognised as policies and practices in India fail to address specific barriers faced by women with disabilities, particularly in response to gender-based violence and violations of sexual and reproductive rights. Gender-based violence against women with disabilities takes many unique forms and includes violence that is perpetuated by stereotypes that attempt to dehumanise or infantilise, exclude or isolate them, and target them for sexual and physical abuse. Many women with disabilities experience gender-based discrimination in the private sphere, ranging from harassment and emotional abuse to rape and physical violence. Women with disabilities in India also face violence at the hands of intimate partners, including husbands and their families.

The Women with Disabilities India Network sat opposite the United Nations Committee on Persons with Disabilities as they delivered their alternative report

Women with disabilities—particularly women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities—are disproportionately subjected to practices such as forced or coerced sterilisation, contraception, and abortion. Frequently, when these women are minors or are deprived of legal capacity, guardians, parents, or doctors may make the decision on their behalf. Women with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities face discrimination in the form of continued institutionalisation in state- and privately-run care homes and hospitals. Indian Laws however do not take cognisance of the special types, intensity and magnitude of violence perpetuated against women with disabilities. While some laws address violence against women with disabilities in institutional settings, in practice women with disabilities have effectively no access to the justice system.

The most obvious barriers to equality before the law in terms of disabled women’s access to the justice system are physical access, communication barriers, and financial constraints. Current policies and practices in India addressing violence against women fail to address the unique causes and consequences of gender-based violence against women with disabilities. For instance, the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016 does not address violence against women with disabilities.

While in Geneva last month, the WWDIN team presented our findings during two interactions with the CRPD – one with the entire committee and a second meeting with committee member Mr. Jun Ishikawa. In both our engagements, we were able to impress on the CRPD committee members the violations of the rights of women with disabilities in India, the roots of these problems, and their varied nature. The committee members asked pertinent questions, asking for clarification on several points and duly noted that there is a need to engage more proactively on issues of violence against women with disabilities. The outcome of the pre-session has been favourable as the List of Issues mentions the violations of rights of women with disabilities and enjoins the Indian state to be more proactive in addressing the concerns of women with disabilities across the country.

This article was written collaboratively between Nandini Ghosh, Assistant Professor at the Institute of Development Studies, Kolkata, and Reena Mohanty, Programme Officer, Shanta Memorial Rehabilitation Centre, Odisha.

Inclusion: let’s walk the talk

Inclusion. It’s a buzz word. Inclusion finds itself in public policy discourse and conversations in development circles. Situated at the interface between policy and political processes, it is relevant in discussions and debates on citizenship and migration, cultural studies, economic theorising, humanitarian standards and the intersection of gender and climate change, among many others.

But we all know that inclusion is fraught with challenges. Raul Cordenillo in his article, Political inclusion is vital to sustainable democracy, argues that ‘foremost amongst these [challenges] is the increasing difficulty by which the needs and aspirations of citizens can connect with accountable and representative political institutions.’ He also cites the inequality of opportunity to engage in policy discussions and the lack of access to political institutions due to ‘frameworks or modalities for inclusive citizen involvement and engagement not being implemented or are simply not in place’ as a key issue.

‘The Foundation is committed to linguistic diversity, and believes that supporting translation and local languages fosters diverse traditions.’

At the Commonwealth Foundation, inclusion is key. Central to our work is the imperative to strengthen and include civic voices, those less heard, in the mainstream spaces where policy is interrogated and decisions are made. We refute the notion that there are people who do not have a voice. Rather we posit that people in all their diversity and in the margins, despite having a voice, are less heard.  Thus, access to spaces in the public sphere and the amplification of civic voices in matters of policy, governance and development are the areas that require accompaniment and support.

In March 2019, our cultural initiative, Commonwealth Writers, convened a small group of translators, writers, publishers, literary agents and cultural activists from South and Southeast Asia in Penang, Malaysia. The intention was to investigate imbalances caused by the relative lack of literary translation in the region.

Malaysian National laureate Dr Muhammad Haji Salleh (second from left) joined translators, publishers and writers at the Translation symposium in Penang, March 2019

But why is this important? The Foundation is committed to linguistic diversity, and believes that supporting translation and local languages fosters diverse traditions. To support translation is to encourage writing in local languages and the proliferation of diverse narratives. While Commonwealth Writers ‘recognises the value of English’s status (and others widely-spoken) as a “bridge language” – a conduit through which works spread beyond borders or communities – its prevalence has often obscured the vitality and range of creation in non-dominant languages in Commonwealth regions.’

‘We all know that inclusion is fraught with challenges.’

In the same month, through our Participatory Governance and Gender programme, we supported six women from West Africa, to be part of United Nations Women’s Commission on the Status of Women and the Annual Consultation of Commonwealth National Women’s Machineries in New York. This built on a dialogue on African Feminism which the Foundation co-convened with its partner, the West Africa Civil Society Institute in July 2018.

Pictured: dialogue on African feminism co-convened between the Foundation and the West Africa Civil Society Institute in July 2018

The New York delegation was intergenerational with more seasoned members mentoring those who have not yet had an exposure to a global space. In the Caribbean, the Foundation is supporting a governance dialogue on the intersectionality of gender and climate change, taking into account the impact of differentiated vulnerabilities.

Hazel Brown (left), feminist activist and pioneer delegate to the 1995 Commission on the Status of Women in Beijing, pictured with younger activist Shamima Muslim (right), whose attendance was supported by the Foundation.

At the last Commonwealth People’s Forum held in London in April 2018, women who have not only been ‘included’ but have actually been authorised to be decision makers in peace panels and processes came together to share their experiences and good practices. The Foundation’s grant programme features a range of projects that highlight inclusion of women in political processes, civic voice inputs to legislative reform, women with disabilities engaged in advocacy for the rights of people at a disadvantage, community-based organisations undertaking policy advocacy on social protection, and NGOs dedicated to promoting health rights and accountability in delivering health services. These are just a few examples of what inclusive governance entails.

Let us not just talk about inclusion. Let us accompany each other to demand for it and more importantly, to walk the talk.

Myn Garcia is the Deputy Director-General of the Commonwealth Foundation.

Pushing back: Commission on the Status of Women

I was a newbie at the sixty-third United Nations Women’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 63) and the Annual Consultation of Commonwealth National Women’s Machineries this month. It was a great feeling to meet a few of the pioneers who attended the same conference in Beijing in 1995 – still going strong and honouring us with their hallowed presence. But I was left wondering: Where is the vibrant African women’s feminist movement that took charge after Beijing 1995? The movement appears to have subsided with time.

Over the past two decades, the women’s empowerment movement ensured that more girls and women secure their agency and claim their rights to voice, as well as access to education, health, shelter, and political representation. It catalysed progress and gains but has fallen short of a complete transformation. It was all because of the work of a few activists who braved the odds and spoke out boldly and firmly in deed and in fact against all forms of discrimination against women and girls.

‘The women’s empowerment movement ensured that more girls and women secure their agency and claim their rights to voice’

My attendance at CSW63 was funded as part of an ongoing initiative of the Commonwealth Foundation which aims to revive, reconnect, and build a cross generational women’s movement, celebrating past gains and inspiring a bold future. It is my hope that this initiative will nurture a new generation of highly motivated and skilled young African feminist activists to continue the struggle.

Hazel Brown (left), feminist activist and pioneer delegate to the 1995 Commission on the Status of Women in Beijing, joined the activities in New York this month

About the CSW 63
Representatives from 45 UN member states, UN entities and the ECOSOC-accredited non-governmental organisations from all regions of the world attended CSW 63. The key themes of the event were: social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls. The programme was in line with global need: these thematic areas remain the major barriers to the full and effective participation of women in their societies.

‘We may have won some battles but the war towards a free and gender equal world is far from over.’

Push back against the push back
The new buzz-phrase for me is to ‘push back against the push back’. After so much work on women empowerment and equality, there seems to be a global push back against women’s rights issues and in some cases an erosion of the gains – in political participation for example. Women’s rights organisations and their allies must rise up and redouble their efforts to rebuild the movement. The UN Chief, Antonio Guterres, acknowledged this when he said ‘power is not given, power is taken’ (Mr. Guterres said this at a town hall meeting that Executive-Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, had chaired and opened with song).

Registering my presence at CSW 63
At that same lively town hall meeting, I tried to catch the attention of Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka, but to no avail. And so in the spirit of Mr. Guterres’ words, I approached him as he left the hall. In the few seconds I had, I urged the UN Chief to look into the challenges the movement faces. My argument – as it has been throughout – was that without a deepening collaboration between the media and the women’s movement, they will at best remain mere purveyors of news, rather than proactive shapers of new narratives and realities.

This is why I was pleased to moderate the session on how Ghana was incorporating gender into its social protection programmes: I got a chance to shape some of the narrative and I feel confident that next year, God willing, I will be able to do more…

My key takeaways from CSW 63

  • Learning about our shared humanity as women of different regions, religions, ethnicities and classes is crucial. Giving agency to these different voices is key to local advocacy and implementation of action plans
  • It was sad to learn that women’s political participation has regressed; we must push back
  • There is an urgent need to ensure women’s access to social protection systems, public services and sustainable infrastructure to level the playing field
    Africa and Ghana have even greater challenges in meeting these ideals, and must work to revive and rebuild a cross generational movement of young and old feminist activists to maintain pressure on power.
  • I was inspired by the conversation about youth and rural women’s participation as well as conversations to include men and boys on the agenda
  • My suggested key action points for African and Ghanaian participants are: mobilise to organize press interactions back home on the outcomes of the CSW63 meetings;  issue statements to government agencies highlighting the gaps in existing programmes on women empowerment and equality; organize intergenerational dialogues aimed at revamping the women’s movement and including newer, younger, or excluded voices; continue public awareness campaigns to increase knowledge and shape better attitudes towards women and girl’s rights.

My concluding advice, to all planning to attend CSW 64: by all means attend, but if you can: prepare, prepare, prepare. Above all be truly present when you are in the sessions and make many friends and contacts.

Shamima Muslim is Founder and Convener of a Alliance of Women in Media, Africa

Defining the agender: West African feminism

The Commonwealth Foundation’s Participatory Governance and Gender Programme focusses on developing the capacities of civic voices to constructively engage with institutions, with each other, and with policy-makers to get their voices heard and ultimately influence policy.

‘Civic voices’ in this context is a broad concept, which does not only include civil society organisations but also individuals such as writers and filmmakers, who have a public voice and can influence public discourse towards policy change. The Foundation recognises that there are voices in the margins, voices who are more excluded than others, because they may not only be female, but female and from a poor rural background, or female and disabled, or young in societies where older people are more likely to be respected and listened to. Therefore, an intersectional analysis lies at the heart of our work.

‘local ownership is critical and movements need to identify their own agendas and solve their own problems’

In line with this broader understanding of civic voices, the programme worked with the West African Civil Society Institute in Ghana to organise a three-day dialogue in Accra.  A diverse group of women’s rights activists, networks, journalists and writers from five West African countries, both young and older, were invited to the conversation to explore strategies to amplify their voice, advance the women’s rights agenda across the region, and identify challenges to the women’s movement. In the spirit of South to South learning, women’s rights networks from Southern and East Africa were also invited to share their learning on monitoring the gender commitments of their governments.

Movement-building is critical to strengthening the collective voice of women. The added value of the Foundation is to facilitate processes that enable women from across the Commonwealth to come together to learn from each other and strategise together. This is part of the Foundation’s capacity development approach, which is a holistic process of change whereby people and institutions develop their abilities to do what they already do even better, to help them solve problems, and set and achieve their goals. This also means that local ownership is critical and movements need to identify their own agendas and solve their own problems. The conversation in Accra was organised on this basis; there was an explicit acknowledgment of this from participants: ‘[we need to] redefine feminism for ourselves, set our own agenda and harness our own resources and inspiration.’

‘In the spirit of South to South learning, women’s rights networks from Southern and East Africa were also invited to share their learning on monitoring the gender commitments of their governments.’

A key result of the dialogue was an in depth analysis of the main challenges facing the West African women’s movement. There was agreement that the women’s movement had been fragmented and was characterised by numerous cleavages, especially along intergenerational and class lines.

It is imperative to start a serious intergenerational dialogue, so the next generation of young women will get to understand what we have fought for and the need to continue the fight if the gains are to be sustained.’

The discussion therefore focussed on developing strategies to bridge these gaps–between women of different ages who had a different understanding of feminism and experiences of being a woman; the gap and mistrust between female politicians and women’s rights activists; the gap between rural and urban, rich and poor women – in order to effectively mobilise women to develop an inclusive agenda that all could support. Therefore, engaging more with younger women and expanding the dialogue on equalities-taking into consideration the various diversities-was seen to be critical to furthering the agenda.

Ultimately, the dialogue created the space for a renewed commitment to the women’s movement at national and regional levels, which enabled each country to develop a road map to strengthen its women’s movement. The Foundation is currently supporting some countries to develop these plans further into proposals that can be supported over the medium-term.

Malou Schueller is a Senior Programme Officer for  the Partipatory Governance and Gender team at the Commonwealth Foundation. 

Malawi’s 50-50 campaign

Gillian Cooper investigates one partner’s decade-long effort to secure greater female representation in decision-making in Malawi.

Emma Kaliya is Board Member of Gender Links, Chairperson of FEMNET, and the Southern Africa Gender Protocol Alliance in Malawi and a women’s rights activist of many, many years. We had the pleasure of speaking to Emma Kaliya about her life’s work and her role in the Gender Links project Making the Post-2015 agenda work for gender equality in Southern Africa, which is supported by the Commonwealth Foundation.

I was struck by the continuous challenges and her unwavering dedication, over more than a decade, to increase the numbers of women in political decision-making roles. Emma’s story highlighted the highs and lows and continuous struggle that gender equality advocacy requires the world over. I was pleased to learn that the global ‘50-50 campaign’ had started in Malawi as a national, grassroots campaign.

Back in 2008, after many years of lobbying and negotiations by the Southern Africa women’s movement, the SADC Protocol on Gender and Development was adopted by Heads of States and Government. Civil society alongside Ministries of Gender/Women affairs had fought long and hard to get SADC leaders to agree to the Protocol – transforming a non-binding Declaration into a more robust Protocol agreement.

Civil society fought to include the protocol target that at least 50 per cent of decision-making positions in the public and private sectors are held by women.  (Since the Protocol’s revision in 2016/17, this target has been revised to be met by 2030).

‘Emma’s story highlighted the highs and lows and continuous struggle that gender equality advocacy requires the world over.’

Adoption of the Protocol was a significant achievement, but civil society recognised that the Protocol’s adoption was just one step in a long journey to implementation. In Emma’s words: ‘We were not going to sit quietly! We know there are tricks!’ Pushing for implementation required tracking progress, and this would be done using the SADC Gender Barometer.

An important first step in the introduction of the Barometer was to popularise it and to show its usefulness to improving gender equality. Fortuitously, Malawi’s elections closely followed the Protocol’s adoption in 2009; Malawi had not yet ratified the Protocol. So in the run up to elections, Emma and other civil society actors used this opportunity to translate the target of 50-50 female representation in political decision-making into action.  The ‘50-50 campaign’ was born.

The campaign was able to gain momentum and really took root with Malawians.  Mini-buses and roadside rest houses painted with the 50-50 campaign slogans are still visible today. While we chatted, Emma challenged us: ‘Ask anyone what 50-50 is and they will tell you.’ And so I asked a couple taxi drivers and the receptionist at our Lilongwe hotel – both male and female – if they knew about the 50-50 campaign. Though not a representative sample, of course –each was able to tell me that it was about increasing numbers of women in politics.

Late Bingu wa Mutharika, the President at the time, was eager to demonstrate that Malawi would make progress on its regional and international commitments to increase the numbers of women in decision-making spaces. And Emma was given a number of platforms to present the movement’s agenda. She was clear: ‘We have come for one agenda. Women want to be in Parliament and local councils.’ Sure enough, in that year, the President provided small but significant funding for the campaigns in each constituency where there was a female candidate. The campaign paid off. At the time, Malawi had the highest number of female candidates it had ever had and 43 seats out of 193 seats were eventually won by women.

‘Mini-buses and roadside rest houses painted with the 50-50 campaign slogans are still visible today.’

Three years later Malawi got its first female President. Previously Vice-President, she took office following the sudden death of Mutharika. Expecting to build on the progress over the last few years, instead the 50-50 campaign faced some of its biggest challenges in the 2014 election cycle.

Those unhappy with her leadership promoted a campaign in the 2014 elections to discriminate against all women in political office. The campaign against women leaders saw the number of women representatives drop from 22% to 17%. ‘We were really let down…I never expected it’; Emma’s body language showed the toll the discriminatory campaign had.

In 2017, Emma was one of the Commissioners on the Special Law Commission on the Review of Electoral Laws in Malawi. One of the recommendations of the Commission was the institution of a quota for women in each of the 28 electoral districts. Such a quota system would open up a seat in each district, guaranteeing 28 seats for women, but would not challenge seats in existing constituencies where women would still be eligible to stand.

While President Peter Mutharika was supportive when he made a statement at an EU-Brussels meeting, his Cabinet decided to reject the recommendation for the ‘28 seat initiative’, siting technical implementation challenges once adopted. Emma was understandably frustrated.

Malawians go to the polls in 2019, and campaigners have been told that the 28-seat-initiative will not be considered. However, the 50-50 campaign lives on and is gearing up again.

Gillian Cooper is Programme Manager for Knowledge, Learning and Communications at the Commonwealth Foundation.

Spotlighting gender and climate change in the Caribbean

Gender is not just about men and women, it’s about correcting the power imbalance and eradicating the factors which lead to one group being more vulnerable to the effects of climate change than the other.

This was a major theme at the recently concluded Exploratory Discussion on the Intersection of Gender and Climate Change, hosted by the Commonwealth Foundation and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Bridgetown, Barbados (4-6 June).

Civil society organisations from across the Caribbean region came together to discuss and learn about gender issues as it relates to climate change and share knowledge on best practices.

Above: Participants in the discussion on the intersection between gender and climate change in the Caribbean.

I was extremely pleased to meet a wide array of professionals involved in climate change action. From the media and communication specialists to the technical experts, and representatives, community-based and indigenous organisations, the participants were excited to partake in the discussions as we dived into the topic of gender relations in the Caribbean.

How is Gender linked to Climate Change?

Common opinion was that Caribbean society is not fully aware of the relationship between climate change and gender. According to the representative from the Institute of Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies (Mona Campus), Kimberly Carr-Tobias, the core of the problem is the disproportionate access to the resources available to adapt to climate change impacts. She identified a clear gender gap in the Caribbean, which propagates the vulnerability of women.

‘Gender analysis allows for understanding gender roles and relations, recognition that there are gaps, identification of gaps, and leads to policymakers and practitioners using gender mainstreaming to achieve gender equality goals,’ Carr-Tobias highlighted.

‘The fact that women are traditionally placed at the bottom of the barrel increases their vulnerabilities to climate change.’

Imbalanced power dynamics between men and women determines who has what rights and who has what access to resources; resources needed to address climate change impacts.

The fact that women are traditionally placed at the bottom of the barrel increases their vulnerabilities to climate change. This affects how women are able to respond to climate change as their access to the necessary resources are restricted to their gender roles; roles which lack fluidity in the Caribbean.

Above: Participants in the discussion on the intersection between gender and climate change in the Caribbean.

Women from developing countries witness the nexus between climate change and gender issues on a first-hand basis. They are oftentimes highly dependent on the land and water resources for survival and are left in insecure positions. Climate change is not just an environmental issue, but links to social justice, equity, and human rights, all of which have gender elements.

Gender roles feed into the existing inequality and therefore the ability to deal with climate change impacts.

Group sessions allowed participants to benefit from in-depth analysis of the challenges which arise in dealing with gender and climate change in the region. A popular one identified – Human Resources. There needs to be the development of a pool of regional resources to deal with the issues at a regional level. Brain drain affects the ability of Caribbean people to address Caribbean issues at a regional level. In addition, due to the newness of gender/climate change as a concept in the Caribbean, many organisations are forced to look outside of their country for the experts to assist.

‘ Group sessions allowed participants to benefit from in-depth analysis of the challenges which arise in dealing with gender and climate change in the region. ‘


Above: Participants in the discussion on the intersection between gender and climate change in the Caribbean.
Above: Participants in the discussion on the intersection between gender and climate change in the Caribbean.

Correcting the imbalance

Vijay Krishnarayan, Director General of the Commonwealth Foundation, stated that governments on their own are not equipped to handle the issues related to climate change. Forging partnerships and collaboration is critical.

‘There needs to be dialogue, learning, and listening. The power relationships determine how action on climate change is played out and the success rate of projects to deal with climate change.’

We want to achieve meaningful involvement of vulnerable people in national discussions on climate change. People who are set to feel it the most are not involved.

As such, the Foundation’s goal over the two days was to ensure that less heard voices are put to the fore.

Gender is an all-encompassing subject which affects our society and must be included in the development of policy to boost effectiveness and broaden representation.

Strategic Gender Mainstreaming was also identified as a way forward.

Gender mainstreaming, established as a major strategy for the promotion of gender equality in the Beijing Platform for Action from the Fourth United Nations World Conference on Women in 1995, requires stakeholders to bring the perceptions, experience, knowledge and interests of women as well as men to bear on policy-making, planning and decision-making.

Key to addressing the gender and climate change issue therefore, is dealing with the detrimental disparity between men and women’s access to economic resources and the means of production.

As pointed out by David Bynoe, National Coordinator GEF SGP Barbados during the discussions, ‘It’s not about fragmented work but about building to make the overall impact better.’

I am certain I speak for my fellow participants when I say that the discussions were enlightening and necessary to help in the regional sharing of information as we continue to work together toward achieving participatory Caribbean governance.

Dizzanne Billy is the Caribbean Outreach Manager at Climate Tracker.