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Female foreign affairs ministers from around the world gathered in Montreal on Friday to kick off a “historic” two-day summit that was described by Canada’s Chrystia Freeland as the first of its kind.

Ms. Freeland and her co-host, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative of the European Union, officially welcomed the delegates to a series of meetings that are set to end on Saturday afternoon.

Topics on the agenda include international security, strengthening democracy and fighting sexual and gender-based violence.

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In her opening remarks, Ms. Freeland highlighted the need to boost female participation in international peacekeeping efforts and conflict negotiations around the world.

“I think we all know that prosperity and peace and security are more likely in places where women, and all people in our societies, can actively participate in political life,” she said at the summit’s first session, which fell on the UN-sanctioned International Day of Peace.

Ms. Mogherini said the gathering is important both as a symbol of what women can achieve, and as a chance to work toward removing barriers so more women can gain access to leadership positions.

She stressed that working toward equal pay, better work-life balance and granting wider access to traditionally ”male” jobs will benefit everyone, not just women.

“It is not just an issue of equal rights, it is not just an issue of achieving fairness for women, it is working to avoid a clear waste of human capital this world cannot afford anymore,” she said.

“When women are not fully empowered, our collective potential in the world is not fully used.”

In a statement, the Nobel Women’s Initiative urged the leaders to use the opportunity to make “concrete and accountable” commitments to female human rights defenders ahead of next week’s high-level general debate at the UN General Assembly in New York.

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“Women human rights defenders and women’s rights movements are frequently targeted because their activism is seen as challenging traditional gender norms, such as through working to defend sexual and reproductive health and rights; the human rights of women and girls; or the environment, land, and territory,” the group said.

The summit brings together at least half of the 30 women who hold foreign affairs portfolios globally, including ministers from Bulgaria, Kenya, Norway, South Africa and Sweden.

Some 15 special guests, including Japan’s Foreign Minister, who is male, were also expected to attend some of the discussions.

Ms. Freeland said she believes it’s the first time the world’s female foreign ministers have gathered for an official summit.

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