I’ve just returned from a trip that I know is a turning point in my life, the 2019 Women Deliver Conference, a triennial event held this year in Vancouver. It was attended by over 8,000 delegates, with a waiting list of 1,500 and 100k more tuning in from all around the world. This is no small gathering.
I attended with the objective of 1) learning as much as possible about the work that’s currently being done for and by women around the world, the challenges we face (not just as women but as a society) and how we can push progress to keep moving faster and, 2) making connections so that I might use my power of entrepreneurship and creativity to help further the messages and goals presented. I walked in the door wanting to help make change but I didn’t expect how profoundly I would be changed by this experience.
The week itself was an emotional rollercoaster. As I arrived and registered, I felt a buzz in the air. Everywhere I looked I saw strong, committed women ready to represent their countries and their causes. I nearly jumped when I ran into Women Deliver president and CEO Katja Iversen who said hello to my 3-year-old daughter Sage, and then ran into Julia Bunting of the Population Council in my hotel’s elevator. I was clearly among giants.
But as our panels began, the topics were sobering. Just living my life as a woman, I thought I inherently understood the plight of my sisters, but I became quickly humbled by how naïve and privileged I really am. Here are just a few things that I learned about what life is like for women around the world:
I learned about women in Pakistan who have no access to family planning even after they are married for fear they will resist motherhood—and their husbands. Only after they produce one child are they allowed access.
- I learned about the devastating circumstances for women in many African nations whose breasts are ironed to prevent them enlarging so young girls don’t become susceptible to gender-based violence…who are susceptible to contracting HIV through gender-based violence…who face female genital mutilation even if their families oppose it because they are carried off in the night against their will…who do not have access to education or safe spaces…and who are married off at a young age out of financial need.
- I learned about the genocide of indigenous women in Canada—happening right now in a first world nation.
- I learned about the crossroads of gender issues and environmental issues, and how women and girls are disproportionately affected by climate change.
However, for every atrocity I heard about, I also found a reason to be hopeful. For one, the Women Deliver Youth Advocates were some of the most determined, well-spoken and inspiring women speaking at the conference. If these women hold onto their power, our future is in good hands. And judging from the numbers in attendance from all around the world, it is clear we have momentum.
I also learned ways in which I could help the cause personally, by understanding that in order to make real change in a woman’s life you have to look at the whole woman. While we can give her access to education, will she be able to attend school if we don’t also give her access to sanitary napkins or clean water? Will she be able to attend school if she has been married off as a child or has been raped and contracted HIV, ever after being shunned by her community?
There were thousands of powerhouse women attending this conference, who are all making progress and affecting change in their individual silos. However, it is clear that if we don’t break down these silos to reach across topics and see how they are all connected, we won’t be able to reach the level of success women need at this critical juncture. We also need to consider working with industries outside of our non-profits and NGOs. Research organizations need to seek out connections with communications professionals like myself. All of the passion put into research won’t amount to much if it’s not shared effectively, clearly and emotionally in a way that gets people to care. Appropriate communication channels and smart, streamlined design are essential to getting these crucial messages out. They can’t be an afterthought.
Beyond combining our efforts and skills, we need to infiltrate politics as well as higher positions in the private sector where we can view and shape all of our policies and our decisions through the lens of gender equity. This is of course easier said than done. It will take a shift in our self-awareness and confidence in raising our voices, telling our stories, and demanding solutions to our needs. We need to do more than lean in…we need to get to places where we can take charge. We need to support each other, hire each other and promote each other to expand our network of empowerment. I truly believe we can achieve this with persistence. Later this month I will be appointed to my town’s budgetary committee. It’s a start for me. Change has to begin both from the bottom up and the top down if we are going to succeed.
Lastly, we need to find a way to make men our allies, even if that means circumventing their fragile egos. As I write this article from my place of privilege at a high-end restaurant in a wealthy city, I look around to see a room full of beautiful waitresses wearing skin-tight black dresses, serving businessmen in suits who are drinking beer at 12 in the afternoon. I realize just how systemic the patriarchy is and how we as women have to unpack that before we can make change. In the words of Buzzfeed India’s, Rega Jha, “the patriarchy has its hooks embedded so deeply within us it feels like bones.”
I don’t say this in a finger-pointing way. I believe men are victims of the tradition of the patriarchy just as women are. Our men are raised to carry the torch of the patriarchy by being taught to be aggressive, to bear the financial responsibility—to be in control. We need to teach our men a better way, but we first must acknowledge that we have the power to change the way we teach our sons. And we need to believe in ourselves if we are going to succeed in this.
So yes, the Women Deliver Conference has changed the course of my life. I’m seeing the world with new eyes. And therefore, I’d like to end this article by answering the question every panelist has asked throughout the week: “how will you use your power?” I will use my power in both large and small ways. I will be more aware of the patriarchy’s reach at every level of society—politics, business, technology and education. By opening my eyes to it I can begin the conversations needed to infiltrate it through a lens of gender equity. I will have those hard discussions. I will use my power of entrepreneurship and creativity to work with organizations who need their message amplified. And finally, I will pass this torch to my daughter. Because if there is one lesson I learned at this conference—exemplified by what’s currently happening in the US with the risk to Roe v. Wade and women’s access to healthcare—it’s that we can never take our foot off the pedal.