Caroline Riseboro

In the march for gender equality, we must never slow our stride

Caroline Riseboro

Caroline Riseboro moderates a panel discussion with four young women.

Caroline Riseboro moderates a panel discussion with four young women.

Last week I was honoured to moderate a panel discussion at the United Nations General Assembly with Canada’s Minister of International Development, the UNFPA Acting Director, government representatives from Benin and France, and four inspiring young women. We discussed the role adolescent girls play in transforming their communities and we listened as the young women shared their lived realities of gender inequality – whether they live in Nicaragua or here in Canada.

Later that week MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes delivered a powerful speech about body shaming to the House of Commons. In her address she condemned the pressure girls face to conform to a certain standard of beauty or professionalism: “I want them to know that their braids, their dreads, their super-curly afro puffs, their weaves, their hijabs, and their headscarves, and all other variety of hairstyles, belong in schools, in the workplace, in the boardroom and yes, even here on Parliament Hill.”

And yesterday our Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, accepted a challenge issued by 23-year-old Breanne Lavallee-Heckert on Twitter, asking him to share his office with her for a day as part of Plan International Canada’s Girls Belong Here Initiative.

It was an incredible few days for gender equality.

Yet in the midst of all these wins, I also witnessed MP Gerry Ritz refer to Catherine McKenna, an accomplished leader and our federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, as “Climate Barbie.” These hurtful comments not only reduce McKenna to her gender and hair colour, they also detract from her work on the global stage.

South of the border, new rules regarding how college campuses should handle sexual assault were recently put into place. These will put a higher burden of proof on survivors, allow accused rapists to cross-examine their alleged victims, and eliminate survivors’ right to appeal.

And while I was at the United Nations speaking with young women about the discrimination they and their peers face, a study was released which revealed that, when it came to key issues affecting girls and women, those in charge were, “largely not confident in their knowledge of the facts.”

How we can hope to break down the barriers facing women and girls, if most leaders and decision-makers can’t even recognize the road-blocks?

I list these contrasting experiences to illustrate that in 2017, gender equality and discrimination remain prevalent across the world.

Girls raise their voices during rally against the rape culture in Brazil

Girls raise their voices during rally against the rape culture in Brazil

We must use weeks like these to remind ourselves of to remain vigilant and focused on our goal of global gender equality.

This goal requires no less than a relentless commitment to transforming the harmful social and cultural norms that perpetuate inequality and violence in all its forms.

Despite hard-fought progress and gains, gender equality is under attack from regressive policies and oppressive laws. We cannot sit back and watch this happen.

Girls continue to die in pregnancy and childbirth at appalling rates simply for want of information or support around their sexual and reproductive health.  In 2016 alone, there were 777,000 births to girls aged 10 to 14 in developing countries, pushing these girls straight from childhood to motherhood.

Bangladesh law now allows girls under 18 to marry under special circumstances. Already one in two girls in Bangladesh marry before 18 and almost one in five marry before turning 15.

In many countries girls and women face lack of protection from violence and harassment. Forty-one out of 173 countries examined by the World Bank completely lack laws against sexual harassment, while 46 countries have no laws addressing domestic violence.

Here in Canada, nearly a quarter of girls have experienced sexual violence before they reach 16. Women still experience barriers to leadership position. In the Canadian workforce, women face an average pay gap of 25.8 cents and in 2016 women in Canada held just 21.6 per cent of board seats in the Financial Post 500.

Transforming these norms is key to unlocking the ambition of the Global Goals. And transformation must take place at every level and corner of society. We must challenge power relations within all our spheres of influence, wherever we work and whatever the context.

This is why Plan International Canada will once again support girls and young women across Canada to step into positions of power and influence in celebration of International Day of the Girl on October 11th.  In doing so we aim to highlight critical girls’ rights issues and challenge perceptions on what girls and young women are capable of.

It’s not just about refusing to go backward. It’s about blazing an unapologetic and unrelenting path forward for the rights of all women and girls.

As we forge this path forward, we can indeed take a moment to celebrate the wins, but we must never slow our stride.