“A few more days until Women Deliver!” The preparatory email to scholarship recipients read.
As a young feminist from the global south attending the conference with over 6,000 delegates from around the world, I was excited – and slightly overwhelmed – at the prospect of working with so many people to advance gender equality. It was my first time attending an event of this magnitude so I had high expectations. After all, I was on a mission. Restless Development was launching our flagship State of the Youth Civil Society research report Young,Feminist and Fearless: Holding the Line and I felt just that: young, feminist and fearless.
However, as the conference went on, I slowly started to realise that Women Deliver is still a very white feminist space, speaking to white feminist issues and amplifying the voices of white feminists – with a dash of Africa sprinkled on top.
The opening ceremony, hosted by the Rwandan government, was a beautiful look into the culture of our hosting country with a performance from the Rwandan Ballet and a warm welcome from the President Paul Kagame. However, this was followed by a high-level panel discussion with dignitaries, including President Katalina Novack, well known for her anti-abortion and anti-rights advocacy.
The response from 131 European feminist organisations and allies was stunned and angry (note the emphasis on European; even at this level, the discourse was not my own). Personally, I failed to connect with the speaker as I largely assumed that given the event was being hosted in Africa, speakers would address the issues young women like myself are facing. For instance, Ms. Novaks remarked on life-work balance and women having to choose between childbearing and having a career. I felt that these comments were misplaced because for me as a young African woman, having access to a quality education as a right to afford women like me employment opportunities is still an ongoing challenge, never mind having to choose between a job and childbearing.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest rate of deaths from unsafe abortions at 185 maternal deaths per 100,000 abortions. Given this reality, and as feminist organisers, Women Deliver had a responsibility to vet all of its speakers and could have given the platform to pro-choice leaders and advocates instead of dignitaries like Ms Novaks. Women Deliver promptly responded with this statement.
This was not the only missed mark by Women Deliver in my view – representation was also lacking. In most of the high-level panels and main plenaries, African young women were not present. The focus on influential high-level speakers from beyond the African continent was a missed opportunity to amplify the voices of African young women who could have really used the platform to bring light to the challenges they face and also inspire solutions. I often found the most valuable conversations amongst African feminists were in side rooms and side discussions, which felt displaced from the heart of Africa location of Women Deliver. This was a missed opportunity to help highlight the fight and struggles of African Feminists. We needed to hear from the #EndSARs movements or the activists in DRC Congo experiencing militant violence in light of the military coups. Ultimately, Women Deliver had a #missingmajority; despite being hosted in a visa-friendly country, the voices that needed to be heard were still not present.
Even the welcome inclusion of self-care and wellness in the programme was informed by the Western wellness space, for example, yoga sessions. I would have loved to see a more authentic African way of self-care and wellness like community storytelling, art and dance.
Women Deliver has made significant strides since the accusations of the ill-treatment of women of colour, the institutional racial microaggressions and the toxic work culture that were made three years ago. This year they embarked on an inclusive co-creation process which included 60% of participants representing feminist and gender equality organisations and entities in the Global South. They also provided 600 fully funded scholarship participants (myself included), which was greatly appreciated and allowed more young feminists to attend. The appointment of Women Deliver’s new CEO and Board Chair is more representative while their swift response to criticism on issues relating to the establishment demonstrated that they are listening.
There is a lot more work to be done collaboratively to decolonise and shift power in the women’s rights sector and spaces such as Women Deliver. To a large extent, we are all facing the same problems of inequality and injustice. However, we need to be truly intersectional in how we discuss these unique challenges and critically assess whose voices are being prioritised.
Women Deliver has shown that they have learned from the past, demonstrating that organisations can learn from their mistakes and grow into a more inclusive space where women of colour feel represented and heard. I left Women Deliver with so many positive learnings from the solidarity, space and solution-oriented discussions. However, as a young feminist from the hosting continent, I still felt like an outsider and left with a call to action; we have a long way to go in truly realising equality and equity in our own feminist movements.
Yande Kalengo is the Power Shifting Director at global youth agency Restless Development. Driven by her commitment to dismantle power structures she has 7 years experience in international development particularly working in Gender, Women’s Rights and Youth programming in Zambia. She is a Feminist, Activist and Lawyer with a Bachelors degree in Law from Oxford Brookes University and Masters in International Law from the University of Westminster. Yande sits on the advisory Board of StrongMinds that works to address the mental health epidemic among urban and rural women in Zambia.