By Kathleen Sherwin, Divya Mathew, Julia Fan, Gretchen Gasteier, and Rachel Elliott | IPS News | 18 March 2022
NEW YORK, 18 March 2022 (IPS) | During this year’s sixty-sixth session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW66), we are eager to see the global community pivot towards more inclusive approaches to advocacy. It’s imperative to put the spotlight on women’s rights and youth-led organizations in communities that are often left out of key discussions. By handing the mic over to advocates across all backgrounds and ages, we can shift to a model that enables all advocates to take a lead role in policy-making and ultimately translate promises and rhetoric into real impact and accountability.
Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ways that the global community works together to push for inclusive progress toward gender equality — progress that fully and effectively engages and equally benefits everyone — are fundamentally changing. Private conversations between the organizations and people with the resources and privilege to access the halls of power have given way to hybrid events and videoconferences that are open to a more diverse, intergenerational set of stakeholders than ever before. This significant shift began to open the doors to more inclusive partnerships.
Also, during these past two years, a global reckoning called on us all to meaningfully transform our advocacy, practices, and programs. International development organizations, including our own, took a long, overdue look in the mirror, and in some cases, began the deep learning and unlearning needed to acknowledge the persistent power imbalances that plague our sector at large. It’s a first step in living up to the values of equity and inclusion — not just on paper, but in practice.
As the world as we know it changed, we were hard at work changing, too. We began actively leveraging our power and influence more intentionally than ever before to center the work and expertise of women’s rights and youth-led organizations in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Now, we are digging deeper to find and use new tools that enable advocates to co-create and co-lead by themselves so that our work and the Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) is more inclusive, diverse, consultative, and accessible than ever before.
In “calling us in” and championing our ability to foster more inclusive partnerships across all of our programs, we are taking action to effectively and authentically advocate for, with, and alongside girls and women everywhere, in all their intersecting identities, to catalyze lasting progress on gender equality.
Transforming ourselves is of course a continuous process. Each day, we are learning to do better and to be better. We hope that our key learnings, below, can support our development colleagues, wherever they find themselves on their journey.
- Accessibility and inclusion must lead the way — in-person and virtually.
According to expert studies, organizations and individuals from LMICs are often under-represented at global health convenings. From day one, it’s urgent to intentionally engage those who have historically been excluded. In planning WD2023, we have leveraged the lessons of the past two years and from prior Women Deliver Conferences. We used an open application to select one-third of our Conference Advisory Group — a diverse panel with a balance of technical expertise. Our advisors represent 30 organizations — 10 individuals are from youth or youth-led organizations and 35 are from LMICs. We have done this to ensure that the Conference is co-created from the start by organizations and individuals representing the intersectional identities of the girls and women we work with and for.
We meet regularly via videoconference with our Advisory Group to co-create the Conference’s Global Dialogue, theme, programming, and more, with support from social impact design experts at IDEO.org. IDEO also supports us as we carry out targeted discussions with specific stakeholder groups, including Women Deliver Young Leaders and Alumni, Deliver for Good Country Coalitions, and Conference Sponsors and Funders.
In planning how to shape the dialogue, foster collaboration, and drive collective action before, during, and after the Conference, we’re working with our partners to ensure that all Conference advocacy spaces, be they digital or physical, are accessible to all. This includes low-bandwidth options, closed captioning, interpretation in multiple languages, and International Sign Language. On-site, we will also provide trauma-informed specialists, breastfeeding/nursing stations, child safeguarding support, and mental health specialists.
- Move from meaningful youth engagement to co-leadership and intergenerational action.
It’s time to follow the lead of young people, shift away from top-down approaches, and actively provide resources for robust youth co-leadership. According to global consensus, young people have a fundamental right to actively and meaningfully engage in all matters that affect their lives. For international development organizations, this means offering space, support, and compensation that youth need and deserve to co-create a more-gender equal future — a future from which they have the most to gain and to lose.
We created the 14-person Young Leaders Program Alumni Committee, with an honorarium for their valuable expertise, to advise us on strategy and implementation of the Young Leaders Program and ideate youth co-creation opportunities. This committee provides invaluable guidance to ensure the Young Leaders Program models meaningful youth engagement and co-leadership, and effectively meets the needs of Young Leaders on the ground.
Women Deliver also hosts Multi-Country Workshops to foster capacity strengthening, knowledge sharing, and coordinated advocacy on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and gender equality. Starting in 2021, these workshops are now designed and led by a Young Leader Planning Committee representing the regions where the workshops take place. They are in the driver’s seat as they craft workshop content and programming, while Women Deliver provides logistical support and the virtual space to gather. This co-created process has led to more targeted — and impactful — workshops that cater to Young Leaders’ specific needs and build capacity in the issue areas where it’s most needed.
- Elevate diverse voices and support organizations working on the ground.
Inclusion and participation have to be integrated into the mission of development work, not a one-off tactic or strategy. Diverse, resilient feminist and women’s rights organizations and movements are – and must always be positioned as – the key drivers of change for gender equality and women’s rights across the globe.
Over the past two years, we have stepped back to shift power across every aspect of our organization’s activities, policies, programs, and behaviors, into the hands of the youth and women’s rights groups most impacted by our work. For example, in 2020, in partnership with Girl Effect, as well as with young people themselves, we worked to understand how youth in India, Malawi, and Rwanda use digital platforms to learn about their sexual and reproductive health (SRHR). This project was designed and executed by more than 160 adolescent girls and young women, who worked hand in hand with researchers on the ground in India, Malawi, and Rwanda to conduct interviews within their own communities, as well as to design questions, discuss results, and generate recommendations. Moving forward, we must involve girls and women in all aspects of data collection and evidence generation that impacts them. This will ensure that the local knowledge and skills needed to drive sustainable change in their own communities, regions, and countries are an integral part of effective advocacy and decision-making.
We’re now handing the pen directly to Young Leaders and spotlighting the work of youth-led organizations during key advocacy moments. Last year, the Deliver for Good Campaign organized its first ever Continental Conversation — an idea conceived by partners in Kenya and Senegal — as a way to work together towards gender equality in the region. What was first envisioned as a one-off peer-to-peer sharing opportunity via videoconference became understood as a vital, first-of-its-kind Continental Conversation to bridge divides — some of which had never been crossed. Together, the Campaign’s country partners shared their own experiences, lessons, challenges, and successes in advancing gender equality, laying the groundwork for a cross-regional peer-to-peer learning model with the power to accelerate progress on girls’ and women’s health and rights in Kenya, in Senegal, and around the world.
Over the past year, we have also co-convened multi-sectoral coalitions with diverse partners representing the intersectional identities of girls and women. For example, as part of the SRHR & Climate Justice Coalition, we’re working on collective action and coordinated advocacy in partnership with more than 60 representatives from a wide range of civil society organizations. The Coalition is working to advance SRHR and gender equality in the context of climate change from an intersectional and climate justice approach.
The Coalition emerged from the need to break down silos between the SRHR and Climate Justice organizations and movements, facilitate knowledge sharing, jointly mobilize, and amplify the voices and priorities of grassroots organizations. These organizations are led by girls and women, the LGBTQIA+ community, and Indigenous people from LMICs, particularly those most affected by climate change and without continuous access to high-quality SRH services. The Coalition is currently raising awareness of the interlinkages of SRHR and climate change in order to ensure SRHR is a key part of climate change conversations and action strategies ahead of key policy moments, such as CSW66 and COP27.
- Collect and present data that accurately represents the diverse needs of all girls and women.
Sustainable progress — and lasting change — will take all of us. Over the past two years, we’ve focused on connecting advocates working across different issue areas and collecting gender-disaggregated data. The data is broken down into the many factors that shape people’s lives, including race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability status, and socioeconomic class in order to drive collective action, the mainstay of transformative change. We also need to engage with data scientists from regions most impacted by this research.
Last year, we partnered with Focus 2030 to carry out a survey of 17 countries on six continents — representing half of the world’s population. An overwhelming majority said they support gender equality, believe that women should be fully engaged in charting our path forward, and expect leaders – political and in business – to take meaningful action to bridge the gender divide. In centering the voices of citizens, we were able to effectively advocate for bigger, bolder commitments by governments and the private sector, ahead of the Generation Equality Forum.
As Women Deliver evolves and grows, we will continue to call upon our partners and funders, including in the private sector, to ensure that the international development world champions and secures robust, feminist funding and resources for women’s rights organizations, youth, and other marginalized communities. We hope you will join us in leveraging the changes set into motion during the pandemic and the global reckoning in our sector. Let’s work together to bridge existing divides and form inclusive partnerships — between countries, sectors, and generations.
The authors are Kathleen Sherwin (CEO/President), Divya Mathew (Director, Policy & Advocacy), Julia Fan (Senior Manager, Youth Engagement), Gretchen Gasteier (Manager, Conference), Rachel Elliott (Senior Associate, Communications) of Women Deliver.