An all-female panel opened the 12th Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting (WAMM) in Nairobi, 34 years after the first such event featured an all-male panel.
WAMM has been held every three years since 1985 and provides the opportunity for ministers, senior officials, civil society, private sector and partner agencies to explore and agree on workable strategies and solutions to tackle gender disparities.
Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland told delegates: “Looking back to 1985, almost all seats for the opening panel of first Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting were occupied by men.
“Today, all members of the panel are female, yet discrimination and prejudice are still daily realities for women in all our member countries.
“So equality is something all nations in the Commonwealth have to strive for, because gender imbalance and lack of equal opportunity and treatment remain, and pay differentials persist.”
Patricia Scotland was joined by Cabinet Secretaries in the Government of Kenya, Margaret Kobia and Amina C. Mohamed, by HRH Sophie the Countess of Wessex, and by United Nations Population Fund Executive Director Natalia Kanem.
Cabinet Secretary for Health, Ambassador Mohamed, read the opening remarks from the President of Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta.
In his statement, the President said: “We have made notable progress in our goal of women’s empowerment as a Commonwealth country, we still have some ways to go in this journey.
“It is about time we utilised ‘The Commonwealth Advantage’ to accelerate gender equality and empowerment of women and girls within the gender priorities set forth by the Commonwealth.”
Ambassador Mohamed said that women and girls are undermined by the lack of education, employment opportunities and access to healthcare.
During the meeting, ministers will reaffirm the Commonwealth vision for ending inequalities, and develop the collective Commonwealth strategy for moving towards achieving gender equality goals during the decade 2020 to 2030.
Included in the strategy are progressive provisions for enabling more women to move into leadership positions, for moving towards universal access to minimum periods of free education and for strengthening access to modern family planning.
WAMM chair, Professor Kobia, will facilitate discussions and decision-making among ministers to outline the next steps for achieving a gender-equal Commonwealth.
The Countess said that Her Majesty the Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, was “delighted” that the meeting to further women’s rights was being held and would await news of its “full and productive outcomes”.
Describing herself as a passionate advocate for the Commonwealth, she said: “I will continue to support and champion your work in tackling gender inequality across the Commonwealth.
“This will not only secure a more equal platform on which women and girls can build, but deliver an empowered future for the women of our Commonwealth family.”
Ministers will consider a summary of the progress member countries have made on the four Commonwealth priorities for gender equality: women in leadership, women’s economic empowerment, ending violence against women and girls, and gender and climate change.
The study shows Africa steps ahead of other regions for its proportion of elected female leaders. Out of 13 Commonwealth countries that have achieved 30 per cent or more members of women in the parliaments, six are in Africa. Rwanda is the only country to achieve gender parity with 55.7 per cent of women in both houses of parliament.
The Commonwealth average for members of parliament who are women stands at 23 per cent which is still short of the global target of 30 per cent. However, more promisingly, in education, a girl is as likely as a boy to attend primary school.
While there has been some progress, the Secretary-General stressed that there is still much to do to address persistent inequities between men and women.
She said: “We now have an important opportunity in Nairobi to brief our leaders when they meet next year in Rwanda for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting on how we can mobilise increased engagement and action by the Commonwealth collectively towards achieving gender equality.”
Ministers will review Commonwealth research on critical areas impacting women’s progress such as collective action on non-communicable diseases (NCDs), sexual and reproductive health rights and gender mainstreaming.
The research shows more than two-thirds of deaths in women across the Commonwealth are due to NCDs, mainly heart disease, diabetes and cancer. The meeting will be a key platform to draw consensus and agree on steps to safeguard one of the most vulnerable groups, women and girls.
Dr Kanem said: “Young people lack information on contraception, comprehensive sexuality education and their agency and autonomy over their bodies.
“They are met with an unfriendly atmosphere when they ask a reasonable question as to how they might conduct their lives.”
Ministers will share experiences from Commonwealth member countries, best practices and tools that have helped overcome critical barriers, including gender-based violence.
The meeting also offers an opportunity to civil society representatives to present ministers with proposals for partnership projects to accelerate progress towards gender equality.
The WAMM theme is ‘From Commitment to Action: Accelerating Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment for Sustainable Development’.
The meeting brings together more than 50 women’s affairs ministers and senior officials from more than 30 member countries. It takes placeshortly before the marking of the 25th anniversaries of the International Conference on Population and Development and the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action.