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The future of Commonwealth young women is bright

9 April 2018

Young leadership, gender empowerment and the future of women in the Commonwealth. Just three of the varied topics discussed at the Women of the World Festival (WOW) in Brisbane, Australia, where Commonwealth Secretary-General was a key speaker.

This is the eighth year of the festival which celebrates women and girls and examines the obstacles they face through shared storytelling and views expressed. One of the sessions, called ‘The Future of Females’ discussed the opportunities and challenges facing women and girls in the Commonwealth. Jude Kelly, the founder of the WOW festival, said the session left her feeling very optimistic.

“So many women are coming together to share their issues, to share their problems, to be candid about that, including the things which have gone unspoken whether that be race, sexual harassment, violence or as a weapon of war. Because the Secretary-General is such a great defender of the right of women to speak up and speak out, I think people are getting a lot more momentum.”

Delegates heard that women were not defined by any single identity, such as their gender, religion, ethnicity or race and that they had multiple identities and still faced challenges despite being the majority. One of the panellists, Madeleine Buchner, founded Little Dreamers Australia, an organisation which supports young carers and has helped more than 1000 families in Australia.

She said, “The challenges are that people still have views of women that they are not on the same level as men. We empower women by having women who are the head of the Commonwealth, The Queen, and others like her who inspire people like me. We need to show women are inspirational and not hide them away as much as we do.”

Other speakers said that women needed to embrace who they were and not feel ashamed that they were different from men.

“We are the problem solvers. The different ideas we bring for peace talks and development will change minds and attitudes,” said Millicent Barty, a communications designer from the Solomon Islands who uses storytelling techniques to spread messages of sustainable development across the Pacific. “You don’t have to be aggressive to be brave. Sometimes humility is the better way and you need to have pure intentions to achieve what you want. The work you want to do has to stem from your heart, you need to show passion and a lot of that comes from your identity.”

The audience was encouraged to talk about difficult subjects, such as the human rights of indigenous Commonwealth people and tackle issues such a racism head-on. One panellist, Winnifred Selby a young entrepreneur from Ghana took up the challenge when she said, “Sometimes women are their own worst enemies. They have the power to help other women, but they don’t because they are afraid of being over taken. We women have to help other women. The western world project in the media that African women are not worth investing in because they are African. So, we have to deal with issues related to racism to empower women.”

Gender mainstreaming is one of the cross-cutting outcomes of the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Strategic Plan 2017-2021.

“What we’re seeing today in these young women on the panel are future leaders and they are magnificent,” said Secretary-General Scotland. “What they will do in the next 10, 20 years I think people here will not be able to imagine. In the Commonwealth we have 2.4 billion people and 60 per cent are under 30. So the Commonwealth is all about youth. We have, with the Queen’s Young Leaders and the Commonwealth Youth Council, tried to identify the skills of our young people and give them the confidence and abilities to seize their opportunities, which are legion. So the Commonwealth is really walking the talk.”

The theme chosen for the 2018 Women’s Forum at this month’s Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) is “An Empowered Future for Women and Girls”. It will focus on the Commonwealth’s gender priorities on women’s leadership in public, government, corporate and private sectors, women’s economic empowerment and ending violence against women and girls.