By Ajita Vidyarthi from Plan International, Laura Lortie Maurel from Cuso International, Rachel Pell from Right To Play International, Merydth Holte-McKenzie from World Vision Canada, Clare Szalay Timbo from Orbis Canada, Meaghan Anderson from Digital Opportunity Trust, Alex Valoroso from Valoroso Consulting, and Maggie Zeng.
Last month, over 6,000 people attended the Women Deliver 2023 (WD2023) conference in Kigali, Rwanda – one of the largest multi-sectoral convenings to advance gender equality. Advocates from around the world, activists, youth, researchers, civil society organizations (CSOs), policymakers, private sector leaders, philanthropic and multilateral organizations came together to address compounding issues impacting women and girls and to galvanize momentum towards collective action.
Members of the CanWaCH Gender Equality Working Group had the opportunity to attend the conference, host sessions and exhibitions, and participate in side events. They shared their reflections on WD2023 and on Canadian CSOs engagement in these global spaces with us.
Read a summary of their reflections below (paraphrased for clarity where appropriate).
Why Canada’s engagement in these international spaces matters
Canadian CSOs engagement at international events like WD2023 is critical. As these events bring together diverse stakeholders from around the world, they foster collaboration and knowledge-sharing among CSOs, governments, businesses and activists.
Attending these events allows us to hear and learn directly from the experiences of our international counterparts and gain valuable insights into best practices and innovative approaches. It widens the horizons of the Canadian understanding of decolonial, antiracist, locally-led, BIPOC feminist approaches to gender and development. By being exposed to international perspectives and resources, Canadian CSOs can also identify gap areas and strengthen their organizational capacity (i.e., skills development, fundraising opportunities, and exposure to potential donors and supporters). This knowledge exchange enhances the effectiveness of our work.
WD23 advocated for the power of collaboration, underscoring that uniting together, across sectors, around a cause is how we create global impact. By attending events like WD2023, Canadian CSOs can build strong networks and explore new partnerships, in particular with youth-led, LGBTQI+, and local women’s rights organizations, thereby enhancing our capacity to address global challenges more effectively.
Connecting with these organizations that are working under extremely challenging contexts also provides us with opportunities to strengthen solidarity in the sector and find ways to extend support. These events also allow for collaboration with international organizations working on similar issues which brings new resources to support Canadian gender equality initiatives.
WD2023 and other international events also provide a platform for Canadian CSOs to amplify the voices and concerns of the communities they represent. They can situate their work within global agendas, draw attention to specific issues, share success stories, and advocate for policy changes on a global scale. For example, CanWaCH did a fabulous job of bringing Canadian CSOs together on the same platform with Canadian decision-makers for an honest, reflective, and critical roundtable discussion.
Key highlight: Youth leadership
WD2023 brought together diverse women’s rights and youth-led organizations, which strengthened solidarity in the sector and created common ground on rights-based issues. The large presence in many panels of youth leaders from across Africa and around the world was a welcome and much-needed change. Youth leaders, some as young as 11 years old, were at the forefront of the conference, moderating panels, leading discussions in spotlighted plenaries, and enthusiastically sharing their thoughts. Instead of urging that youth are the leaders of tomorrow, speakers and participants echoed the assertion that youth are the leaders of today. Hearing about their amazing achievements and initiatives in gender equality, climate justice and education was truly inspiring.
Key learning: Embracing the power of grassroots
Creating authentic spaces and processes for local knowledge and expertise to inform programming and policy-making was a resounding call at the heart of the conference. Locally-led movements have a pivotal role, and their voices must be heard. As international organizations, it is our duty to empower them with decision-making authority. As such, practitioners from the Global South gave specific advice to international NGOs and donor governments alike on the importance of sharing power.
A key focus of different sessions was the value of engaging in meaningful community dialogues and fostering collaborative solutions that truly resonate with the people they serve. In particular, women and girls have lived experiences that matter, and their voices must be amplified. Solutions to gender inequality need to work at a systems level by creating enabling ecosystems of support for women and girls that foster collaboration to work towards this kind of systemic change. They are experts in their own right and should be engaged by programs as experts, not as beneficiaries or recipients. Some good practices that were mentioned included integrating women and girl-led research, women and girl-led monitoring and evaluation, and ensuring that mechanisms are created to enable women and girls to hold implementing agencies accountable to agreed-upon outcomes.
Many sessions also spoke to the pitfalls of positive intentions without adequate attention to follow-through or whether grassroots guidance and inputs were truly being taken into account in decision-making.
We need to think more critically about how we can push our partnerships beyond surface-level efforts to recognize and address unequal power dynamics. Commitment and intentionality are key. That way, we can unlock the potential of grassroots organizations and pave the way for a more inclusive and impactful future.
Lack of diversity and inclusiveness
There is still room to grow, and we hope that Women Deliver continues to build on this momentum in future years. Throughout the conference, there was a lack of diversity of voices, and we would have liked to see more dissenting and diverse views, particularly in large plenaries. While many African delegates were present and participated in panels, very few were leading the discussions. In addition, the opening plenary granted space to representatives of right-wing, authoritarian, and anti-gender regimes, and more should have been done by the Women Deliver organizing committee to avoid this.
While there were a lot of sessions to choose from, many of them were very similar. There were no new approaches or methodologies that came out of the conference, but instead, sessions reaffirmed the need to take an intersectional approach and continue to focus on context-specific approaches, localization and decolonization. We were also surprised by how light the conference was on LGBTQI+ programs, as there were only a handful of sessions on this topic, and most were side events outside of the official conference program.
While many people attend Women Deliver because they want to work through collaboration, we heard from many that they felt a lack of inclusion. There wasn’t a sense of belonging for everybody who was there, and we have to be mindful of that. There needs to be more emphasis on making these spaces more inclusive and accessible.
Overall, Working Group members concluded that their experience at WD2023 was a valuable one. As one contributor put it, the conference provided an opportunity to “cultivate the energy that the global gender rights movement needs to continue pushing for a gender-equal world where everyone, especially youth, can thrive.”