What can we expect from Women Deliver?

Julie Savard-Shaw, director of Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada, speaks with OpenCanada in advance of the Vancouver conference on gender equality.

By: /
May 30, 2019
Vancouver
A cargo ship passes under Lions Gate Bridge into the Port of Vancouver. REUTERS/Chris Helgren

Women Deliver — the “world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights, and wellbeing of girls and women in the 21st century” — is expected to bring around 6,000 participants together in Vancouver from June 3 to 6, from 160 countries around the world.

The conference kicks off officially Monday afternoon with a high-profile panel featuring Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Ethiopian President Sahle Work-Zewde. Dozens of sessions and events will take place during the week, on topics ranging from the power of tech to promote gender equality, featuring Melinda Gates, to a celebration of the work of young intersectional feminists, to others on mental and reproductive health issues. Much of the conference will be streamed live here.

The conference is expected to be a big event for its host country, just months before the federal election. Over the past three years, the Trudeau government has placed great emphasis on its own initiatives that promote gender equality, including the Feminist International Assistance Policy and the Elsie Initiative for Women in Peace Operations. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland has also regularly framed Canada’s foreign policy as “feminist,” though the department or policy itself does not use the label officially.

In the lead up to the conference, Maryam Monsef, minister of international development and minister for women and gender equality, who will also be attending next week, announced two new initiatives, and more may be yet to come.

So what can we expect from the event and what would a successful conference look like? In advance of Women Deliver, OpenCanada connected with Julie Savard-Shaw, director of Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada to discuss.

The mobilization campaign, led by Savard-Shaw, is a national movement, separate from Women Deliver and from the Canadian government, but which now includes over 340 organizations, business, schools, etc., from all sectors across the country, joining forces to push the conversation on gender equality. Savard-Shaw helped to create the campaign after a core group of Canadian organizations were looking to do something special in advance of Women Deliver.

Women Deliver isn’t a Canadian initiative. Can you explain the relationship between the conference and Women Deliver Mobilization Canada, and your involvement in both?

Before becoming director of Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada, I was working at the Prime Minister’s Office providing advice on gender equality, international development and immigration related matters. I was an early advocate of having the Women Deliver Conference in Canada because I strongly believed — and I still believe — that the conference presents decision makers at all levels, in all sectors and from across the globe the opportunity to make concrete commitments to advance gender equality.

Unlike other international conferences, Women Deliver isn’t about consensus on announcements, nor is it about resource mobilization for the replenishment of a specific international non-governmental organization. Instead, the conference provides a platform for countries, companies, organizations, etc., to announce publicly how they will move the dial on gender equality. For Canada, in my opinion, that meant cementing the government’s leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

I strongly believe that government alone cannot tackle the barriers to gender equality. All Canadian actors, including corporations, not-for-profit organizations, educational institutions, media and individuals, need to challenge entrenched attitudes and take action in order to make a difference. So once Women Deliver announced that Vancouver had been selected as the host of the conference, I knew I had to get out there and rally people.

The goal of Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada is to ensure that Canadians are engaged, and that lasting change comes out of the conference. The mobilization campaign is a national movement that was created to provide partners, allies, and supporters from across sectors and across Canada the opportunity to expand their networks, take part in cross-issue dialogue, and collaborate so that advocacy agendas on gender equality can be better aligned and action agendas can be more coherent.

Our team, though not involved in the planning of the conference itself, has been working closely with Women Deliver in creating a drumbeat in advance of the conference because we believe that this is an important moment for Canada. We see it as a line in the sand by which certain actions and commitments need to be made to truly move the dial on gender equality.

"The conference provides a platform for countries, companies, organizations, etc., to announce how they will move the dial on gender equality."

What are you personally looking forward to in Vancouver?

I am looking forward to seeing the impact of bringing everyone into the conversation. Often, international conferences and the ecosystem created around them don’t take an intersectional lens to gender equality and therefore many experiences and points of view are missing from the conversation. Throughout the week, by attending conference sessions, events led by Canadians at our Canada Pavilion and by participating in side events led by Indigenous people at the Longhouse Dialogue or at Feminist Deliver, it will be possible to truly develop a wholesome understanding of what is needed to advance gender equality.

What would a ‘successful’ conference look like to you? And, how does the mobilization campaign define success?

A successful conference in my opinion would be one that results in concrete and lasting change. The mobilization campaign identified different legacies that we collectively want to see come out of the week. The mobilization team would measure success both in terms of the commitments made by decision makers — in all sectors, not just government — to close the gaps that remain in the three action areas we focused on (gender responsive health systems and services, gender-based violence, and women’s economic empowerment and equal opportunity), and in the public’s discourse on gender equality. Social media and media play an important role in shaping people’s attitudes and behaviours. For example, as Informed Opinions’ Gender Tracker reveals, women’s voices are often excluded from news coverage and men’s perspectives continue to outnumber women’s by a ratio of almost three-to-one in public discourse. Our team would therefore also define success as seeing a shift in how people perceive and act on gender equality.

What are the most dire challenges you’re hoping are addressed?

For one, health care is a basic human right, yet vulnerable, marginalized or disadvantaged populations, both in Canada and globally, do not have access to quality services that use a gender approach. For example, a nurse station in northern Canada may not have someone on staff who can recognize bodily injuries as signs of domestic violence. Similarly, in many countries, health clinics and hospitals do not offer the full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights services.

Also, gender-based violence, the sexualization of women and girls, and the hypermasculinization of boys and men are creating unhealthy outlooks on gender identities. If we are to achieve gender equality, we must address these issues immediately.

And lastly, everyone benefits when women have equal opportunities and contribute to the economy. McKinsey Global Institute estimates that $12 trillion could be added to global GDP by 2025 by focusing on women’s economic empowerment. To do that, we need to focus on professional development programs, child-care services, unconscious bias in the workplace, the wage gap, and more.

How have you seen the discussions around gender and feminist foreign policy within government and civil society evolve in the past few years?

The conversation simply did not exist in or with the federal government four years ago. On the domestic side, women’s organizations were starving for funding and many had to close their doors. On the foreign policy side, gender equality was not seen as a priority. Gender equality experts at CIDA, then DFATD (now GAC) and other departments including defence and immigration were either let go or they left. The government did have a hugely impactful international development policy that led to reducing maternal death, but women were not seen through an intersectional lens and women were only seen as child bearers. Their economic empowerment, participation in politics and peacekeeping talks, or their right to choose when, how and with whom to have children was not a priority. In fact, it was silenced.

Now, I would argue that civil society organizations are free and even encouraged to engage in a dialogue with each other and with government. Canada’s feminist international assistance policy puts gender equality at the centre and abides by feminist principles. Some trade agreements include gender equality chapters, peacekeeping missions include women, and the list goes on. I may be slightly biased, but in my opinion this government has set a new standard for the inclusion of gender equality in foreign policy. Of course, more can always be done and I trust that my colleagues in the civil society world will continue to push for progress and continue to ask the government to do better. The key difference is that now, they are actually free to do so.

Further to that, what opportunities — and gaps — still exist when it comes to concrete results or the acceptance of gender quality concepts?

I think the gaps that still remain around gender equality are clear in the challenges mentioned earlier, as are the opportunities to close the gaps with concrete programs and policies. The only other observation I would make is that gender equality cannot continue to be a political tool. All over the world, gender equality is used as a weapon to divide societies. That must stop. If not now, when?