By Sophie Edwards | Devex | 13 June 2017
The fifth Women Deliver Conference — the world’s biggest gathering on women's health and rights — will be held in Canada in 2019, it has been announced.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said today that the conference — which brings together more than 6,000 political leaders, health experts, advocates and other stakeholders every three years — will be held in Vancouver from June 3-6, 2019.
It will be seen by many as confirming Canada’s position as a global leader on women’s issues.
Speaking in front of a monument commemorating five women’s rights activists in the grounds of Parliament Hill, Ottawa, Trudeau said he was “proud” to host the conference.
“Girls and women have always deserved equal rights, opportunities and control over the decisions that affect all aspects of their lives, and it is long past time to ensure gender equality around the world,” he said.
The news comes as Canada positions itself as a major champion of gender equality and women’s rights through its foreign assistance efforts, outlined in its self-styled “feminist” International Assistance Policy released last week, as Devex reported.
Many in the development community suggest that Canada’s position puts it in stark contrast to recent decisions taken by the United States, including proposed cuts to development assistance that are expected to hit women’s reproductive health and rights especially hard, and legislation that limits access to family planning services.
Canada’s support for women’s rights makes it an ideal venue for a conference designed to accelerate progress and promote new solutions to the challenges that women and girls face around the world, according to Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver, which will organize the event in partnership with other groups.
“We are thrilled to be having the fifth Women Deliver conference in Canada — a country that has an international assistance policy with women’s rights, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health and rights at its core; and a government that calls itself feminist,” she said.
Iversen described the event as a “solutions-oriented conference” that aims to bring together a diverse group of actors to improve the situation for women and girls around the world. There are also practical considerations behind the choice of Vancouver, she added, since the venue must be able to accommodate 6,000 attendees in one building.
“We don’t want to spread out over buildings as you lose the sense of togetherness. It’s important when people from different backgrounds, issues and positions come together, then an amazing energy comes out of that and they sit down and talk to each other,” she said.
“We believe that if we only operate in our own little bubble, then we are never going to change things. But when we partner and integrate projects that put the whole woman and girl at the center then it’s more efficient, cost effective and yields solutions,” she added.
The last Women Deliver conference, held in Denmark in 2016, was a “catalyst” for a number of initiatives, according to Iversen. She pointed to examples such as the establishment of cross-country networks focusing on women in the workplace and cross-sector collaborations around gender-based violence and sexuality education.
The 2019 conference comes at a difficult time for the women’s agenda. As Devex has reported, the effects of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate the “global gag rule” in January are already being felt on the ground in some developing countries. President Trump has also canceled funding to the United Nations Population Fund, the U.N.’s sexual and reproductive health agency.
The Trump administration’s draft budget includes proposed cuts of 32 percent to the foreign assistance budget.
“We could not have imagined the world we stand in now two years ago. We have light towers who stand up for women and gender equality, but we also see a big backlash,” Iversen said. The conference would be an opportunity to “try and course correct and really remind each other and stand up [and say] that this is the right way,” she added.
Canada’s “feminist” international assistance policy comes on the back of a series of commitments supporting gender equality. Last week, the government announced the creation of the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, a fund worth 150 million Canadian dollars ($111 million) to go toward women's rights organizations in the global south.
“Canada’s goal is to empower women and girls in every sense of the term because we know this will ultimately change the world for the better,” said Marie-Claude Bibeau, minister of international development.
The government has also pledged more than 330 million Canadian dollars ($250 million) in additional funding for international reproductive health and rights since the start of the year, including a contribution to the She Decides fund, a Dutch-led initiative to counter the effects of the global gag rule.
It marks a change in tone for the country under Trudeau. Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper refused to fund abortion as part of his flagship global maternal and child health program, saying it was too controversial with taxpayers.
In a June 6 speech, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland said Canada would set its own course, independent of the U.S.
“The fact that our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course. For Canada, that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order,” she said.