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Behind Vancouver's massive and mysterious Women Deliver conference

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Image: Women Deliver CEO and President Katja Iversen, from Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada Facebook page

Hardly anyone local was prepared when a New York-based organization named Women Deliver swept into Vancouver in early June to discuss gender equality with 8,000 political leaders, advocates, academics and journalists from 165 countries -- and another 100,000 people globally participating online -- and then swept out again. Wait! Who was that masked stranger?

What made the conference (and the organization) really daring though, was the subject: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR). If a Women Deliver conference was held in an anti-abortion jurisdiction -- say, the state of Alabama -- the whole state might implode in frustration.     

The name "Women Deliver" hints at the organization's original goal: to lead the way towards achieving the United Nation's Sustainable Development Goal No. 5, Improve Maternal Health. "In 2007 the maternal mortality rate was atrociously high," says the Women Deliver website. "World leaders needed to step up, rally around the issue and commit to action. And, they needed a place to do it. To fill the void, the Women Deliver Conference was born."

Other sources indicate that the UN tapped some major funders, like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Clinton Foundation, to create a new pro-birth control organization and call on their own networks for donations. In a dozen years Women Deliver has grown like a superseed, sprouting runners all over the world and rooting new entities in the fertile soil of women's empowerment.

A huge star-studded 2007 conference kicked off the new Women Deliver organization, which quickly gained the credibility and the connections to tap into global government funds as well. The way for nations and corporations to gain prestige at Women Deliver conferences is by announcing major programs and funding for women's initiatives. And the bidding gets higher every year.

For 2016, the Women Deliver annual financial statement shows, the organization started the year with about $11 million, and spent $9,264,000 on "Global advocacy and information sharing." Women Deliver's 2017 audited financial statement shows $20,866,560 (20 million plus) in net assets, and a scant  $220,594 in liabilities. Most of the funds are "restricted" to specific programs Women Deliver provides, however, because they are grants provided by local governments to fund all or part of their local programs.

In 2016/17, Women Deliver expanded its allies and audience when it unveiled a 12-point Deliver for Good Campaign, a "common advocacy" agenda promoting SHRH and also economic, educational, and legal equality for women, which it says "had more than 300 campaign supporters across the globe from 50 countries by the end of 2017."  Women Deliver makes the case that investing in women -- in every field -- improves outcomes for everyone.

To promote Deliver for Good, Women Deliver chose a group of high-level "Influencers" including Sophie Grégoire Trudeau, identified as "a gender equality advocate and the wife of Canadian Prime Minster Justin Trudeau," and Her Royal Highness The Crown Princess of Mary of Denmark -- also "an advocate for health, gender equality, and the empowerment of women and girls."

Their Influencer colleagues include some more formal credentials: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women; José Alberto "Pepe" Mujica Cordano, former president of Uruguay with a legacy of championing gender equality and women's health issues; and Dr. Alaa Murabit,  UN High-Level Commissioner on Health Employment and Economic Growth and a UN SDG Advocate.

Remember, Women Deliver conferences are set up to encourage governments and corporations to try to top one another in supporting women and girls -- a refreshing change from the race to the bottom in so many parts of the world. As prime minister of the conference's host country, as leader of a government which has implemented explicitly feminist policies, and as husband of one of the Deliver for Good's ambassadors, Justin Trudeau announced two new permanent endowment funds for supporting women's groups.

On June 2, he announced a new Equality Fund within Canada, to which the federal government has committed up to $300 million, and invited other sectors to contribute too, such as "the philanthropic community, private sector, governments and civil society organizations." So far, those groups have contributed $100 million of the ambitious $1 billion goal.

The Global Affairs Canada backgrounder noted that domestic women's groups will continue to be well-funded:

"Budget 2018 announced $100 million over five years to support a viable and sustainable women's movement across Canada. Adding to this historic investment, Budget 2019 proposes to invest a further $160 million over five years, starting in 2019 to 2020, in the Department for Women and Gender Equality's Women's Program." 

Women's groups will decide how proceeds from the Equality Fund will be used, mostly internationally but also domestically. Global Affairs Canada notes, "The Equality Fund is a consortium of Canadian and international organizations deeply rooted in and connected to women's organizations and movements and with expertise in international development, investment and philanthropy." 

Indeed, empowering women has emerged as the main guiding principle of Canada's development policy, as articulated in a June 2018 news release from Global Affairs Canada:

"Canada is adopting a Feminist International Assistance Policy that seeks to eradicate poverty and build a more peaceful, more inclusive and more prosperous world. Canada firmly believes that promoting gender equality and empowering women and girls is the most effective approach to achieving this goal."

Trudeau's second announcement also followed that principle: he pledged $1.4 billion a year to a similar public/charitable fund for 10 years, for a total of $14 billion, to provide sustainable funding for women's groups in developing nations. Such a public charitable fund already exists, in the Women's Peace & Humanitarian Fund (WPHF), a UN and civil society partnership. With the slogan, "Support women. Prevent crises. Build peace," WPHF acts to avert conflict rather than rebuilding afterwards.

Says the website: "The Women's Peace & Humanitarian Fund aims to support women's organizations responding to crises and building peace in: Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Burundi, CAR, the DRC, Haiti, Iraq, Jordan, Liberia, Malawi, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, Palestine, the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, Somalia, South Sudan, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Uganda, Ukraine, and Yemen." Their current goal is to reach women in 40 countries by the year 2020.

A look at the Nobel Peace Prizes and the Right Livelihood Awards (the people's Nobel) shows that even as second-class citizens, even without weapons, even at risk of their lives, women's non-violent actions have ended horrifically violent conflicts. For example, two of the three women who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 were from Liberia, Africa: Leymah Gbowee and Eleanor Johnson-Sirleaf. They used non-violent means to end a brutal 14-year civil war, where at least 250,000 people died, three-quarters of the country's women and girls were subjected to mass gang rapes, and nearly a third of the country's people were left homeless.

By mobilizing Christian and Muslim women together to demonstrate and campaign for peace, the Liberian Peace Women created enough pressure to halt the constant combat and bring the dictator Charles Taylor to the truce table with leaders of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) army. Today, Taylor and LURD are gone from Liberia, and Eleanor Johnson-Sirleaf is president.

The Women Deliver conference delivered much more than 8,000 inspiring success stories -- now available on the Women Deliver channel on YouTube, along with previous conferences. Under Director Katja Iversen, Women Deliver has grown exponentially, from distributing bright infographic cards and posters (which still engage millions of women in their own health care), to training community organizers in dozens of countries where they're seriously needed. Although Women Deliver seemed to swoop in and out of Canada quickly, the information women shared about their current projects and programs will add momentum to similar projects globally.

The prime minister's commitments go far beyond any previous Canadian government. A feminist international development policy? A pledge of at least $100 million annually in grants to women's groups in Canada seeking gender equality? And beyond that -- a multi-billion-dollar international organization campaigning in favour of sexual and reproductive rights, with an emphasis on women's SHRH? Pinch me! This must be the millennium.

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local (Calgary) column for four years. She was editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 - 2013.

Image: Women Deliver CEO and President Katja Iversen/Women Deliver 2019 Mobilization Canada Facebook page

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