ALICIA WALLACE: In the heart of Africa, a union of nations seek to work as one

THE OPENING ceremony of the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Rwanda this week.

THE OPENING ceremony of the Commonwealth Youth Forum in Rwanda this week.


Alicia Wallace

THE Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) 2022 is now underway in Kigali, Rwanda, after being postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Before the high-level meetings begin, there are a number of forums that take place during the week.

These include the Commonwealth Youth Forum, Commonwealth Women’s Forum and Commonwealth People’s Forum.

These events bring people together to chart the way forward.

Those present in Kigali are full of excitement, ready to meet new people, equipped with talking points in support of their communities and curious about the process and its outcomes.


At the opening of the People’s Forum yesterday, Commonwealth Foundation Director-General Dr. Anne T Gallagher AO noted the Foundation exists to support civil society, and this is evidence of Members States’ recognition of civil society as critical actors and necessary participants in governance. Gallagher said: “The Foundation has made it our business to reach out and listen to Commonwealth civil society. The message coming back is that we need much better ideas and more voices to hold ourselves and our governments to account.”

In her keynote address, Rwanda’s Speaker of Parliament Donatille Mukabalisa spoke of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. She encouraged active participation in the People’s Forum, referring to it as an opportunity to re-engage on our common future. These two contributions in the first session of the day set the tone, and delegates were vocal throughout the day’s sessions, sharing their experiences and, in many cases, frustrations, asking questions and pressing panelists for clear solutions and decisive action.

The People’s Forum is focused on climate, health and Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16 on peace, justice and strong institutions. It seeks answers to broad questions about protecting the planet through equality and justice and working together to reform or build the institutions we need to ensure all people are included.

In the sessions held yesterday, it was clear people are making connections between health and climate, recognising they cannot be treated as separate issues. They intersect with each other as well as many other thematic areas. Speakers expressed concern that climate change is still being treated by far too many people as a future issue when it is happening now. They also noted the countries most affected by climate disasters are those that contribute the least to climate change.

Dr Jimmy Fletcher, former Minister of Public Service, Sustainable Development, Energy, Science and Technology in St Lucia, added to this, calling it unconscionable that Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are told they can access funding for mitigation efforts, but through loans, especially when the crisis we face is caused by the very people who want to collect interest on loans to help us.

There were a few different perspectives on financing which include grants (funding by countries responsible for emissions driving climate change) and taxation (on wealth). The options presented all have one commonality — a focus on equity.


Earlier in the week, the Women’s Forum was held, bringing 250 delegates together to focus on gender equality targets and how Member States are progressing as we approach 2030. The first session was about women’s leadership and, importantly, looking beyond the numbers.

Founder and chair of Omnia Strategy, Cherie Blair - wife of the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair - made the point that political quotas are not enough if only a certain group of women can afford to run for office.

Women are often responsible for the vast majority, it not all, of domestic and care work. If women have to pick up the children from school, do the grocery shopping, help with homework, prepare dinner and ensure elders take their medication on time, there is very little time left for campaigning and late meetings.

If women are paid less than men for work of the same value, there is less money available to support their bids for leadership which includes the ability to employ domestic workers.

This point was also raised in the CEDAW Speaker Series session on Article 4 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women which is about temporary special measure (such as political quotas). It was also an area of focus for CARICOM in its statement ahead of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) in 2021 where creating an enabling environment in public life for women was discussed.

There were several strong contributions from delegates throughout the day. One delegate spoke about challenges women face in the world of work. She highlighted the difficulty accessing loans which limits ability to make financial decisions for oneself. She reminded everyone in the room of the people who were not there, and asked how many of us bring those people with us when we attend events, make comments, ask questions and contribute to the development of solutions.

“It’s not a platform of sitting and talking, yet the real woman is down there,” she said. “There is no meaning to our words and no success in our meetings when we do not consider the people on the ground and find ways to bring them and their interests to spaces where power sits and decisions are made.”

The UN Women representative in Rwanda reminded everyone that feminist leadership is critical. She said: “One great thing we can do, as women leaders, is to understand the feminist leadership principles. Know them, use them, make our institutions accountable on these principles.”

She named five principles — self-awareness, self care and caring for others, dismantle bias, ensure inclusion, sharing of power and responsible and transparent leadership. This is absolutely critical, especially as we talk about representation and equality. It is not enough to add to the number or to take up space. We need women leaders who care about other women and believe in equality, and we need to make room for a diversity of women including women with disabilities, lesbian, bisexual and trans women, women experiencing poverty and women in the Family Islands.

We have to remember that women are not all the same, our experiences and our needs differ, and we are experts in our own lives. Our work toward gender equality must include greater participation in political and public life and gender responses to crises such as climate disasters.

One area that most people agree needs great investment is violence against women and girls. The Women’s Forum launched “Measuring the Economic Costs of Violence Against Women and Girls” which provides guidelines for measuring the financial cost that is often unseen. The costs include income loss, medical treatment, psycho-social support, law enforcement and reduced gross domestic product (GDP).

The methodology used is the EconVAWG (Economic Costs of Violence Against Women and Girls) which is comprised of the five steps detailed above. The Commonwealth says: “[…]the impact of VAWG goes beyond the individual and affects communities, businesses and overall economies[…] Measuring the cost of VAWG can help change the social discourse towards an understanding that VAWG is not socially acceptable and is a public welfare issue. Therefore, by understanding the costs of VAWG policy, makers can better provide solutions that help reduce violence.” The 151-page document includes a list of guides and templates for each of the steps in the methodology, guidelines for both primary and secondary data collection, focus group discussion guidelines, and a manual for conducting household surveys.

Secretary General Patricia Scotland also announced, at the Women’s Forum gala dinner, that a Commonwealth toolkit on SDG 5 would be launched shortly. There are likely other announcements, launches and commitments during this period, and you can keep up with them at thecommonwealth.org and commonwealthfoundation. com.

It is especially important to pay attention to CHOGM, beyond coverage by Bahamian media, to be aware of perspectives, discussions and commitments made by and to The Bahamas, the Caribbean region and Commonwealth States.

We need to know, we need to remind and we need to demand.


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