As part of the 2022 Commonwealth Women’s Forum held in Kigali, Rwanda on 21 June 2022, the Commonwealth Secretariat’s Human Rights Unit (HRU) convened a high-level panel on the theme of ‘Accountability for Gender Equality’.
The panel sought to examine the progress that Commonwealth member countries have made in achieving gender equality, and how those member countries:
- participate in international human rights accountability mechanisms [like the Universal Periodic Review and the Commission on the Status of Women],
- interact with other arms of government and statutory bodies [like human rights commissions],
- and collaborate with civil society and multilateral organisations.
Moderated by the Head of the Human Rights Unit, Dr Shavana Haythornthwaite, the panel included the following notable speakers:
- Lady Cherie Blair CBE QC, former First Lady of the United Kingdom (UK) and Founder of the Cherie Blair Foundation;
- Stephen Twigg, the Secretary General of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association;
- Miriam Muna, President of the Maldives Human Rights Commission;
- Steve Letsike, Chairperson of the Commonwealth Equality Network and
- Honourable Professor Margaret Kobia, Kenyan Minister for Public Service, Youth and Gender Affairs.
Economically empowering women and girls
In her opening remarks, Lady Cherie Blair highlighted how her passion for women’s empowerment and gender equality led her to establish her philanthropic organisation, the ‘Cherie Blair Foundation for Girls’, and how during her time as former First Lady of the UK, she pursued projects that would economically empower women and girls around the world, which she continues today. She noted that education for girls was critically important as a driver for autonomy, independence, and human development. Lady Blair also noted that the increasing number of private companies taking decisive action on issues such as modern slavery, sexual orientation and gender identity, and race reflects the growing importance of business and human rights principles. However, she underscored that we must continue to hold the private sector accountable to international human rights standards because it creates an accountability mechanism that would not ordinarily exist.
Stephen Twigg noted the importance of legislatures in providing oversight over executive action, including legislation and departmental budgets. Highlighting his experience as a former member of the UK House of Commons, he analysed how individual members of parliament can ensure that governments are held accountable for their gender equality goals. He also shared how membership in multilateral organisations, like the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, can provide good practice and skills transfer amongst its members. In doing so, he noted the presence of the Chairperson of the Commonwealth Women’s Parliamentarians Association, Honourable Shandana Gulzar Khan from Pakistan.
Speaking on the role of national human rights institutions, President Muna noted a number of positive developments in the Maldives, including the adoption of legislation that mandates education for all children, including girls. However, she also expressed that much more needs to be done to ensure that the rights of women and girls are protected and advanced – particularly when facing the challenges of extremism. President Muna also recognised the importance of regional connections, like the Commonwealth Forum of National Human Rights Institutions (CFNHRI). She remarked that the biennial meeting of the CFNHRI allowed NHRIs to share best practices on how to address the challenges of gender inequality and accountability.
The importance of intersectionality for gender mainstreaming
Steve Letsike highlighted the role of civil society organisations in ensuring that accountability mechanisms take into account the needs of the most vulnerable women, as well as LGBTI people. She noted that gender equality will not be a reality if lesbian, bisexual and transgender women continue to be marginalised, and in some cases, criminalised. Steve also spoke about the importance of intersectionality and how her various identities are often at odds with the gender accountability mechanisms. But Steve was also hopeful, and highlighted positive developments across the Commonwealth, including the decriminalisation of same-sex intimacy in southern Africa, and the accreditation of the Commonwealth Equality Network.
In her reply to these presentations, Professor Kobia noted that considerable progress on gender equality and the empowerment of women had been made in Kenya: for instance, with the African Gender Award, under which President Kenyatta made gender equality the cornerstone of his development agenda. However, she noted that to ensure that governments are held accountable for their gender equality obligations, the voices of women and girls must be included in every step of the developmental agenda: from programme development to monitoring and evaluation. Professor Kobia also stressed the need to end patriarchal attitudes and practices that continue to exclude women from fully and freely participating in all aspects of life. Finally, she stressed the need to engage men as champions of gender equality, as it leads directly to improved economic, social and developmental outcomes.
- Gender equality is the responsibility of everyone and therefore requires a whole of government approach to succeed.
- The manifestations of women's exclusion are rooted in their diversity, including race, sexual orientation, gender identity, age and disability. It is only when gender mainstreaming takes into account these intersectional factors, that true gender equality and justice can be achieved.
Learn more about the Commonwealth Human Rights Unit
- Rena Gashumba Communications Adviser, Communications Division, Commonwealth Secretariat
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