From June 2 to 6, 2019, I attended the world’s largest conference on gender equality - called “Women Deliver” - in Vancouver. Over 9,000 people attended, representing a diverse cross section of society including governments, corporations, non-profits, women’s rights organizations and hundreds of youth. Session topics ranged from ending gender-based violence, increasing focus on girls’ education, empowering community health workers, and ending child marriage.
The World Vision delegation included 12 youth leaders selected from campus clubs and youth groups across Canada. They were impassioned with what they heard and saw and I loved their commitment to continuing to drive social change for women and girls around the world.
One of the screens at the closing plenary session at Women Deliver, indicating the focus on adolescents at the conference. Photo: Marie Cook
"I felt like I was seeing history in the making. There was so much energy, thousands of people – especially young people like me - devoted to continue advocating for the equal rights of girls,” Shagufta Farheen, a first-year student at the University of Calgary and youth ambassador with World Vision Canada, told me.
“Hearing stories about the challenges women and girls face in the global south solidified my understanding of why gender equality is a necessary component for entire communities to achieve self-sustainability.”
The global conference, which is held every three years, made history when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced a $1.4-billion annual investment over ten years to women, adolescents and girls’ health and rights. His announcement at one of the plenary sessions brought us to our feet, cheering.
I asked Michael Messenger, our President and CEO, what he thought of the announcement. “The importance of the Canadian government’s announcement cannot be underestimated,” he told me. “We know from our work around the world that empowered women and girls are change agents. The youth delegates that I met here have inspired me with their determination to continue what’s been accomplished already.”
A touching moment between Maryam Monsef, Minister of International Development and Status of Women and Shakila Zareen, a child marriage survivor, at a Women Deliver event. Both were born in Afghanistan. Photo: Sara Schulz
The conference included hundreds of sessions for participants to choose from. World Vision hosted several panels, including one on delivering gender equality frameworks for community health workers.
Other sessions included the power of partnering with communities to strengthen gender-equal health systems, looking at malnutrition through a gender lens, using gender equality to end preterm births, ending child marriage and many more.
The child marriage session was powerful. One of the speakers was Shakila Zareen, a young woman who was married while still a child back in Afghanistan, who was violently assaulted by her former husband. She lives in Canada now and advocates for an end to child marriage and for women’s rights everywhere.
I have met several women who were married while still too young, but her story stayes with me, overcome only by her strength.
What differentiated this conference from previous ones is its emphasis on youth, and how they will use their power to drive progress and change. The World Vision youth team led a session on the power of play and how youth can use art, dance and sport for change. The session also included a silent disco that had fans of all ages moving to the music.
Members of World Vision’s youth delegation wear headphones and dance at the silent disco. They are joined by World Vision’s president, Michael Messenger. Photo: Marie Cook
During the conference, we asked the youth to work alongside our technical experts, and play important roles. This included interviewing leaders from various sessions, to learn more about how their work is achieving gender equality, or working towards it.
One of the youth took over World Vision Canada president Michael Messenger’s twitter feed for a day, so his followers could have a glimpse at some of the sessions through her eyes. Another youth hosted a Facebook Live from the silent disco and interviewed some of the dancers.
With a shared passion that spans the entire country, the youth delegation announced they are developing a national youth-led campaign to advocate for the empowerment of women and girls globally.
It was a privilege to see these young changemakers in action and I can’t wait to see what they do next.