Leymah Gbowee is a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize laureate from Liberia and the founder and president of the Gbowee Peace Foundation.
It is undeniable that women are a force for change. Women’s movements promote more inclusive, peaceful and prosperous societies, and female leaders are more likely to work across party lines and be responsive to the concerns of their constituents and the planet, benefitting society as a whole. As Nobel laureate Shirin Ebadi said recently when speaking about the women-led revolution on the streets of Iran: “It is women who will open the gate to democracy.”
Yet not a single country has achieved full gender equality, and the World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate of progress it will take 132 years to close the gender gap. Moreover, notable setbacks and a growing backlash against progress have been seen in recent years.
In this context, the Canadian government’s Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, which was launched in 2017 and focuses on advancing empowerment and equality through the direct support of grassroot feminist initiatives, has been crucial. The program views women not only as the beneficiaries of aid, but also the implementers of it, recognizing that it is local women’s groups that know best when working toward gender equality. As a result, the capacity and adaptability of the feminist organizations supported by the program have increased, and the inclusion of women across sectors has improved.
Unfortunately, the program is approaching its end date, and its future is uncertain. In recent interviews, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other federal ministers have been signalling a shift in the government’s financial support strategies, moving away from foreign aid and instead focusing on civil society by providing major loans to foreign governments. While financing for governments is also vital for development, Canada must not falter on direct aid commitments for gender equity and women’s movements.
We only have to look at recent headlines to see why. In Afghanistan last month, the Taliban continued eroding women’s rights by banning women from higher education and working for NGOs. In Poland, abortion is all but impossible. Similarly, in the United States numerous jurisdictions followed suit after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year. In South Korea, which I visited in December, the government has planned to shut down its gender equality ministry. I could go on.
In this global context, the Women’s Voice and Leadership Program has supported crucial change, increasing women’s representation in political leadership and other sectors – including law, journalism and medicine – across the world.
I saw this firsthand when visiting Ukraine last summer. An organization I met with in Lviv is doing incredible work to support women fighting for peace, justice and equality. The trip flooded me with memories from my own years as a refugee and survivor of war, and reinforced my view that while the context of war may change across borders, the effect on humanity is always the same – as is the importance of female activists in peacebuilding, working for gender equality and implementing change for all.
As gender equality continues to backslide globally, we need more programs that centre women as the implementers for change, not just its beneficiaries. The Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, and others like it, have supported crucial progress, but progress alone doesn’t mean that the work is done. Progress is not linear. Victories that are won over years of hard work can be lost in the blink of an eye. We cannot take peace, democracy or our rights for granted – we have to continuously fight for them.
The Canadian government should renew this program for two crucial reasons. First, a global development policy that relies too heavily on loans creates long-term financial burdens. For example, Ghana has made great strides in increasing the number of children finishing school. However, the country is now set to cut its education budget in order to make loan payments.
Second, and most crucially for gender equality, money that goes directly to women-led organizations empowers women and assists them in serving local needs and pursuing local priorities. If the same funds were to be given to governments, where women are woefully under-represented the world over, women and gender equality could be overlooked or even actively excluded.
In 2017, I called on Canada and Mr. Trudeau to be bold in the country’s efforts to implement a feminist foreign policy. I highlighted that his words will only have meaning if Canada invests directly in women, girls and women-led grassroots movements and NGOs. The Prime Minister heeded that call.
Today, I again call on Canada to continue to be brave and keep this program, because gender equality is not a five-year plan. Achieving true gender equality is a long-term, relentless process.