Ministers from across the Commonwealth are meeting in Kenya this week to discuss ways to accelerate efforts to end gender inequality.
Gender and women’s affairs ministers from 53 states will explore the gains and the gaping holes in progress in several key areas, including women in leadership, ending violence and increasing access to family planning services.
In June, a global report found that no country in the world was on track to achieve gender equality by the UN-agreed 2030 deadline.
Decisions from the two-day meeting, which begins in Nairobi on Thursday, will feed into a wider Commonwealth strategy designed to end inequality and meet the 17 UN sustainable development goals (SDGs).
The strategy will be adopted at the Commonwealth heads of government meeting next year.
The secretary general of the Commonwealth, Lady Patricia Scotland, said this week’s meeting offered “an immensely valuable opportunity for our member countries collectively to monitor and evaluate progress towards achieving Commonwealth priorities”.
The Commonwealth’s annual report on gender equality, expected to be published later this year, shows existing efforts are not effecting significant, lasting change.
Despite improvements in maternal health, primary education and women’s participation in the labour force in Commonwealth states, there is still a dearth of women in political leadership.
Only Rwanda has achieved gender parity in its parliament, with women making up more than 60% of MPs in the lower house. Just 12 other Commonwealth countries have parliaments where more than 30% of MPs are women.
Despite a greater presence in the workforce, women remain more likely than men to work in the informal sector, while huge gaps endure between the prevalence of gender-based violence across Commonwealth countries and the initiatives in place to tackle such abuse. The impact of climate crisis on women’s lives has also received relatively little attention.
“The last 40 years, looking at the data, looking back where we were, most of us would say [we’ve not moved] fast enough,” Scotland told the Guardian before the conference. “But many of us can say it has changed. Are we on a progressive journey? Absolutely. We’re going forwards step by step.”
The secretary general appears undaunted by the challenge of achieving consensus among a diverse mix of countries from Africa, Asia, the Americas, the Pacific and Europe – from liberal governments to the more religiously conservative.
“One of the great things about the Commonwealth is it creates a platform for you to have very intense conversations, very practical conversations. The difference is we walk with people and create a framework within which those conversations can take place, looking at practical outcomes. We’re not talking to people, we’re talking with them … about practical things we can do.”
Asked if it was possible to find common ground on the subject of women’s sexual and reproductive health among countries as different as Malta, which has a complete ban on abortion, and South Africa, which has some of the most liberal laws, the secretary general said it was about “understanding where each country is, and looking within the cultural context to find solutions compatible with both [agreements] they have signed on to in the Commonwealth, and their own religious beliefs”.
While such an approach may seem inadequate in the face of increasing global pushback on women’s rights, Scotland is convinced it works.
Last year, when there was “very little agreement between the G7 and G20” after two years of talking with officials, “every single leader agreed on everything” in the “very ambitious” communique that came out of the Commonwealth heads of government meeting – although the statement did tiptoe around the specific issue of upholding women’s reproductive rights with a pledge to ratify and implement the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.
Scotland believes making the economic case for improving women’s lives is increasingly winning over government officials. A much-cited report by McKinsey and Company from 2015 calculated at least $12tn (£9.6tn) could be added to the global economy by 2025 if women had more opportunities in the workplace.
“I say to people: ‘Do you want to get rich?’” said Scotland. She stressed that any agreements made this week would be forwarded to finance, health and education ministers, to make sure there is money to back the commitments.