Our intrepid Bangkok-based correspondent Jessica Mack reports from Malaysia on what may be the biggest weapon in the global-change armamentarium – women power.
Kuala Lumpur – Thousands have descended upon Malaysia’s capital city for what is being called the “decade’s largest global conference on women and girls.”
It is the third Women Deliver conference, a gigantic convening that scoops together young people, clinicians, heads of state, donors, and women’s rights activists from all across the world with its giant conference-y arms. The meeting opens Tuesday and runs for three days. It is organized by a group of the same name, a global maternal health advocacy organization based in New York.
The first Women Deliver conference happened in London in 2007, and the second was in 2010 in Washington, DC. Over the years, the conference has become the “Polar Express of Women’s Empowerment,” so to speak, with the conductor, Women Deliver’s incomparable, charismatic founder Jill Sheffield, yelling “all aboard!”
Thousands have hopped on with the confidence that the train is headed, eventually, to a place where women and girls can live free of violence, with unfettered access to education, financial independence, and good health.
Of course the conference itself doesn’t alone achieve this, but it has remained a steady mechanism for convening, organization and meeting of minds – unlike any other in this movement.
The energy in this city is pulsating with hope, excitement, vision and all that other good stuff – just a few weeks after a bitterly feuded Prime Ministerial election re-seated the incumbent (dubious outcome, for many).
I am attending the conference, happy as a clam, so of course I think this conference is important. But why should you, and why should anyone?
It’s an expensive meeting, with emblazoned totes and other such booty, a zillion concurrent sessions and maybe) some boring speakers. Perhaps, Women Deliver is not all that different than any other global meeting. Except that it is different.
Earlier this spring, Foreign Policy’s David Rothkopf called sexism “civilization’s’ greatest shame.” The regular treatment of women and girls, worldwide, represents “a system of the most egregious, widespread, pernicious, destructive pattern of human rights abuses in the history of civilization.”
That, in a nutshell, is why the Women Deliver conference is so (insert expletive or two here) important. The importance of this major event, to begin with, is simply that it’s taking place.
Not everyone here would describe him or herself as an “activist,” but this is still a humongous organized rally, of sorts. We are a combined movement. There is inherent power in getting a bunch of people together for a particular reason. The sum of our energy is more than the parts. Things happen: agreements are made, ideas are born, relationships are formed, and commitment is entrenched.
We have achieved a tremendous amount in securing the rights and health of women and girls in 2013. But there is an absurd amount that we have not done yet.
Women and girls still occupy a space under immense assault, from every angle. Last year, female genital cutting was condemned by the world’s largest Muslim group, yet the practice still persists widely. We know exactly how to save women from dying in pregnancy and childbirth – like, exactly – and yet almost 300,000 of them still do every yeear.
Rape and other sexual violence are anathema, yet they are grievously common. In the last year we learned more about the gory realities of fatal gang rape than anyone ever should. The marriage of ten-year-olds; the rapes of five-year-olds; the pathetically disproportionate pay of grown women in global super powers. Not to be too depressing, but the list literally just goes on.
Women Deliver is important because though things are changing, they are changing really slowly and many things aren’t changing at all.
This is half of the global population we are talking about. At the heart of these ills remains a cold, hard, stubborn nub that we are furiously whittling away at: this notion that women are not as valuable as men. This idea has always been, and we are fighting tooth and nail against the “it always will be” part. Maybe we are fighting the current of history, but proudly doing it.
Women Deliver is also critical because within the field of global health and development, this is a landmark year(s). We are two years away from the Millennium Development Goal deadlines, and getting ready to cast a new net of goals into the future. We are coming up on the two-decade anniversary of ICPD and the Beijing Conference on Women, two pivotal gatherings in the mid-90s, which helped secure the global agenda on women’s rights.
If you don’t speak “wonk” that means now is the moment to look back at what has happened and, more importantly, what hasn’t. We need to ask why we’ve failed and how we can more surely succeed. We need to be honest and bold and triply committed. I am certain this will be the message of leaders and policymakers at the conference this week.
The experience and messages of the meeting will motivate and influence each of us distinctly because we are a motely crew of people who care a hell of a lot about women and girls. We are sex workers, we are millionaires with philanthropic tendencies, we are HIV+ women, we are midwives, we are stodgy but well-intentioned Ministers, we are volunteers, we are the conference and hotel staff making things run.
We will each take something different away, and maybe some will take nothing at all. But I would argue that this convening itself is a fierce stake in the ground that says: gender inequality is not an issue of the past but it also will not be an issue of the future.
Also, the woman at the heart of Women Deliver – and it is just one women (albeit with an army of support) – is an advocate like almost no other. Jill Sheffield is into her 70s, a ball of pure energy and vision. I have heard crusty reporters and cynical scientists alike coo and melt when they speak about her. Probably no other woman could wield such a centripetal force as Jill.
There is also a fierce spirit of mentorship here, which is rare in the global health and development field. At a “youth pre-conference” several hundred young people from around the world will meet, network and organize. They’ve been paired up with mentors in the conference lead-up and will hear from writers, policymakers, and donors about how to keep going and keep succeeding in their work.
This is as much about a meeting of the current minds as it as a nest for fostering the future minds on this issue. We – and the others long before us – have been banging this goddamn drum for so long. Others will bang it long after we’re gone. That, we are counting on.
I’ll be reporting back as the conference unfolds and you can also follow the live webcast of all the plenary sessions here.