The plenary session of this morning included breaking down barriers faced by women and girls around the world. Clearly Trudeau’s announcement and the funding into sexual and reproductive rights is essential to sustainable development.
On the topic of abortion, the impressive Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF), Dr. Alvaro Bermejo, focused on right-wing activists this morning who are:
more organised, more financed and more aggressive…[and instead of fighting back with anger]…we need to re-group, listen carefully to those with opposing views and fight back with resilience.
A key standout has been the inclusion of young people throughout the conference, including representation on most panels. We’ve also heard from well-known political figures listen to their young constituents who are facing the day-to-day realities of living in countries like Namibia, where condoms are simply unavailable in the North of the country — an uncomfortable fact presented by a HIV+ youth leader to her First Lady. This open dialogue and conscious effort to empower youth participation are perfect examples of how we can bridge the gap between governments and civil societies.
The awe-inspiring Ziauddin Yousafzai spoke about the global necessity of girl’s education. Yousafzai is the co-founder of one of Shape History’s partners, the Malala Fund.
Whilst women’s healthcare held the spotlight of most conversations throughout the day, there was inevitably, and quite rightly, a regular connection made with education. Dr. Lina Abirafeh, Executive Director of AIW, explained that ignorance has a huge part to play in the discussion around women’s health and their right to choose.
“People are unsure of what bodily autonomy is…therefore held back and restricted from going forward.”
On the topic of education for girls, it wouldn’t have been right not to hear from co-founder of the Malala Fund, Ziauddin Yousafzai, and what a privilege it was. In addition to saying his “wife is a treasure of wisdom”, he fiercely stated that:
Quality education is the most powerful equalizer.
Education – he went on to say – would empower women to “be the first to speak up” if their rights are violated. After all, education is a fundamental basic human right.
Keeping girls in school and learning for longer was the hot topic of the afternoon session, which brought together Hon. Julia Gillard, former Australian Prime Minister, Mabel van Oranje, Board Chair of Girls Not Brides, and most popular amongst the audience, Madame Fatima Maada, the First Lady of The Republic of Sierra Leone.
Unsurprisingly, the greatest interaction was with the First Lady, who took no issue with telling the audience how much she and her husband, the President, have prioritised education for girls in their first year in power. She spoke about her Hands Off Our Girls project, which was introduced as a combative measure against early marriage and teenage pregnancy, as well as the introduction of free quality education for all and the designation of 21% of GDP going towards education.
This is progress is commendable, but it’s still important to understand that pregnant girls in Sierra Leone are still not allowed to go to school (and they often become pregnant against their will). Most schools also have no private access to bathroom, which means that girls who are menstruating don’t go to school during their period for fear of bullying or worse.
There’s so much more I could talk about but instead let me summarise a couple of final noteworthy points from other panelists:
- Fatu, a Youth Advocate from Sierra Leone, astutely explained the need to bring religious and community leaders into the conversation around education, demonstrating the power of some of the programmes that are run for young girls. This way, they can “start preaching relevant things”. Fatu and the First Lady of Sierra Leone amicably interacted with each other, numerous times during the discussion.
- Mabel van Oranje commented on the fact that sexual health is still a taboo subject and the only way to break this is to talk about it, and she led by example:
I’m going to talk about sex [because] boys and girls need to be taught about sex education [in schools].
The day concluded with a Culture Night, bringing together the immense number of diverse delegates with music and most importantly, a ton of food trucks. The conference concludes tomorrow with undoubtedly some special guests (not that I’m greedy but I’m hoping for AO-C or Michelle)!
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