Commonwealth leaders have called upon all women to unleash their potential as they urged action to bridge the gender divide, promote women’s economic empowerment, and end gender-based violence.
The Commonwealth Women’s Forum opened on 20 June in Kigali, Rwanda on the backdrop of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2022.
Under the theme ‘Delivering a Common Future: Transforming for Gender Equality’, the first day of the forum addressed women in leadership, women’s economic empowerment and engaging men and boys, as well as different generations, in ending violence against women and girls.
Speaking at the opening session, Commonwealth Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland QC, noted that women and girls had been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 from vaccine inequity to economic insecurity and rising gender-based violence.
“It is our profound responsibility to place women and girls at the heart of our response to the pandemic – not to further marginalise our sisters”, she said.
“We must strive, together, to end domestic, workplace, societal and political violence. We must strive, together, to place our sisters at the heart of our fight against the existential threat of climate change. And we must strive, together, to unleash the potential of all women and girls in the Commonwealth – and enhance their opportunities to contribute to every sphere of social, economic and political endeavour.”
The Secretary-General saluted Rwanda as a “champion of gender equality” and women’s empowerment, adding, however, that the political will and commitment demonstrated by Rwanda is the exception, not the rule. HE Jeannette Kagame, First Lady of Rwanda, praised Rwanda’s role on being the seventh best performing country in closing the gender gap.
As “political change often clashes with cultural norms”, Cherie Blair CBE, QC, Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation for Women, delved on the importance of women’s financial autonomy as key to emancipation and called on the Commonwealth to reinforce efforts to achieve equal economic empowerment.
Panellists at the session also spoke about the hurdles women face in entrepreneurship and trade. They highlighted how women working in the informal sector are vital to African countries’ GDP – yet are ignored as a group despite international trade depends on women workers.
On the topic of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG), attendees discussed the economic costs of VAWG on countries, where in some instances the costs outweigh what a country spends on education – focusing on ending VAWG can make real financial sense for a country.
Bafana Khumalo of Sonke Gender Justice, a South African NGO working on gender issues in Africa, gave an example of a transformative initiative engaging men in ending violence and bringing about gender equality:
“Men who have grown up without fathers don’t have role models for when they become fathers, so we started a mentoring programme. The programme has reduced the rates of violence in the homes of those men who have gone through this programme and they are more willing to share in domestic duties. We say to men “let’s come to the party”, so they can be equal partners and share in duties at home.”
The day concluded with an intergenerational celebration recognising the contribution of women and girls of all ages to community development.
The 2022 Women’s Forum attracted a record number of participants from across the Commonwealth with over 600 registered.
Learn more: The Commonwealth Secretariat