Last week I was in Colombo, Sri Lanka for the World Conference on Youth. It aimed to take an intergenerational view of the UN’s development role, but what was particularly noticeable was the interest in gender equality.
Almost everyone I spoke to mentioned gender equality and women’s empowerment as central to any sort of global development success. When I entered negotiations and collaboration on recommendations for the Colombo Declaration, gender continually came up.
Many people have noted the increased discourse on women in Australia, we are not alone. A number of delegates reported they had watched or heard of Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech and were inspired to stand up to sexism in their own communities.
Often development can be side-lined as a soft issue and one which is distant from us in Australia. But gender issues affect everyone, and women’s empowerment challenges are as real in Australia as they are overseas. With all countries discussing gender equality, everyone was facing broadly similar issues, but at different stages.
My Kenyan friends were trying to increase women’s attainment of high school education and in the economy. The Indonesians were more interested in sexual diversity and freedom. For me, my priority was economic empowerment of women and increasing men’s support for gender equality.
Gender equality is more than a blip on the radar for Australia. It is an integral part of the economic and social progress for all of us.
I listened to fierce and unbridled passion from young people about gender equality. “We cannot consider anything a success unless women progress and are equal to men,” said one delegate.
The youngest female MP of Sri Lanka gave an impassioned speech about what it means to be a young woman in a developing country pushing boundaries. “This is not about inequality, women deserve to be given the same opportunities as men” she said.
At 29, Upeksha Swarnamali is an inspiring woman, making up just 5% of the female representation in Sri Lankan parliament.
I often find being a man who actively discusses gender and diversity puts me among very few contemporaries. It was pleasing to see men actively considering gender equality in forming policy during the conference. We should all be heartened by that.
Global development is not a one way street. Australia is not just there to advise and guide but also to learn.
It would be arrogant to think that we do not have our own problems. We have reached a crisis point on domestic violence. We are lacking in women’s participation in areas like technology, and particularly in leadership, and still have too many set ideas on where our boys and girls will head.
We hear too often that we are part of a global economy and community, but how is that realised? It is partly through institutions like APEC and the UN, and through the building of cross-border relationships.
A friend of mine in Singapore proudly boasts being Asian-Australian. We recently spoke that Australia is not engaging enough with Asia. It is all well and good to talk about Asia but unless we build relationships ourselves then it will remain mere noise.
And if nations and regions are not going to actively work together we can only go so far on issues like global gender equality.
Men in developing nations are gifted the majority of opportunities. Some countries, like Sri Lanka, are challenging this with direct investment in women entrepreneurs. Global development gives us a chance to right the wrongs that our own communities face, and that can start with supporting women.
The next generation is active on the opportunities and challenges that lie in the rise of women and they will not let it become a side issue, but rather place it at the heart of global development.