Thousands of people from around the world will head to Kigali this weekend to participate in one of the largest global multisectoral conferences to advance gender equality.
The 2023 Women Deliver conference will bring together activists, youth, researchers, civil society, policymakers, nonprofit organizations, the private and philanthropic sector, and multilateral organizations to discuss topics ranging from abortion access, gender-based violence, the impact of the climate crisis on women and girls, to elevating the voices of adolescent girls.
Organizers are expecting over 6,000 people to attend and over 200,000 people to tune in virtually. In-person capacity registration hit its limits — and spilled over to a waitlist that includes about 1,700 people.
And while it's a moment of convening for global feminists — it's also a stock take on the evolution of Women Deliver, the international nonprofit hosting the conference. This follows a massive moment of reckoning after stories of racism, harassment, and its toxic culture were publicized three years ago.
A promise of inclusion and reform
The last time Women Deliver hosted its flagship conference was in 2019. This year’s meeting will also be the first on the African continent. Previous iterations were mainly held in cities in high-income countries such as Vancouver, Copenhagen, Washington D.C., and London.
This is a welcome move — as many conference organizers have received harsh criticism of the exclusive nature of some global convenings where low- and middle-income countries are discussed yet their citizens cannot access due to costly travel and inability to get visas.
But Rwanda has an inviting visa policy — with citizens of the African Union, and those from countries in the British Commonwealth and the Organisation internationale de la Francophonie receiving entry visas at no cost.
Conference organizers have committed next week to be the “most inclusive, diverse, and accessible” of its convenings to date.
And this isn’t taken lightly. The organization is midjourney in the process of reinventing itself after a tumultuous public shaming three years ago.
In 2020, current and former employees shared a flood of stories of racial discrimination, harassment, bias, “white faux feminism,” and “toxic cliquish behavior” that cascaded down from the top of the organization.
One woman wrote that the organization “has been a tool of white feminism and white supremacy by silencing the voices of vulnerable junior staff and WOC.”
An independent review was undertaken and the report that came out was described as a “slap in the face” by one of the former staffers who had publicly shared her experiences after it found no single person was responsible for the “challenges” within the organization. The same month of the report’s release, Katja Iversen, then-president and CEO of Women Deliver, resigned.
In the aftermath, the board apologized and hired a new CEO, Maliha Khan. It announced a new board of directors, including board chair Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, who is a former United Nations under-secretary-general, among other efforts.
Khan told Devex they are looking at their evolution in two phases. The first was to have internal conversations to identify the organization’s ways of working that had a colonial and racist heritage.
“Now it is about: “How do we move from that to a complete evolution of the institution itself,” she said. “What is the role of an INGO in the 21st century in supporting the feminist movement and change in the context where change needs to happen?”
And that includes transforming the leadership role the organization had into a supporting role for those actually at the forefront of change.
“The feminist movement and gender equality world sees this as their platform and we're just curating — managing the logistics of it,” she said. “We shouldn't claim leadership of that. It's completely inappropriate for a northern international organization to be doing that.”
She said this also includes moving away from using technical, expert jargony language, which puts the organization in a privileged position, to talking about things in real ways and changing its business model.
"It is very, very difficult to say that we are decolonizing ourselves, and we're becoming an anti-racist organization if we are a U.S.-based, New York-based organization that solely focuses on global north issues,” she said.
A new way of working
The Women Deliver convening takes place at a moment when the anti-rights movements are working to dismantle hard-won gains. The U.S. Supreme Court ruling to effectively revoke the constitutional right to abortion has emboldened anti-abortion activists globally and anti-LGBTQ+ groups are pushing draconian legislation, which recently passed in Uganda.
And forecasts estimate if the world continues at current rates, it will take another 300 years to reach full gender equality.
“There's a real feeling that gender equality is having huge setbacks,” Khan said.
Some headline speakers at the conference include Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, American politician Stacey Abrahams, former first lady of South Africa Graça Machel, and former Irish President Mary Robinson.
Khan said this is the first time the conference has been co-created. They’ve set up an advisory committee with representatives from 30 organizations, of which 60% are from low- and middle-income countries. They met dozens of times to co-create every element of the conference, she said. There was also a youth advisory committee — it’s the first time youth are able to attend.
They also had regional partners host convenings in the lead-up to make the event more accessible to people who can’t make the journey to Kigali.
This is also the first time there have been open submissions for sessions — anyone in the world could submit to host a session. There are 170 side events. And it's the first time Women Deliver has had an open call for scholarships, with 600 attending the conference with full financial support.
Sarah Kline, co-founder and CEO at United for Global Health, told Devex her organization sees this conference as a platform for organizations to “raise awareness, foster collaborations, and advocate for effective policies and interventions” on the topics they care about. In their case, it’s about improving the mental well-being of young mothers globally.
Carole Sekimpi, senior director for MSI Africa, said her organization is looking forward “to share research, to share learnings and evidence and also to reconnect with our partners.”
“I think since COVID-19 has been here, there hasn't been a lot of opportunity to convene such gatherings. Some of the younger advocates have never even been in a space like this,” she said.
Rwanda has become a hotspot for conferences on the continent and organizers also said it was chosen as the host because of the strides it’s made — it’s ranked the top performing country in Africa for closing the gender gap.
Kigali is a modestly sized city — and this will be a large influx of people. Hotel rooms across the city are nearly completely booked up and plane ticket prices have soared.
While the government has built up the infrastructure to support large conferences, Khan said this event is going to “stretch the limits” of the city and its convention center.
Given this, Khan hopes attendees keep in mind the spirit in which they are attending.
“If they don't get the type of hotel that they might otherwise be accustomed to, or food takes a little bit longer to be served …. forgive some of the mild inconveniences,” she urged.
The government plans to shuttle the thousands of attendees from the airport to their hotels — and then between the conference center, the city’s arena, and their hotels throughout the week. It’s also hoping participants take advantage of the country’s tourism before and after the event — offering a discount for attendees hoping to trek to see the country’s iconic gorillas.