Six takeaways for Canada from the world’s largest women’s rights conference

Posted on May, 24 2016 by Action Canada

Alia Dharssi | National Post | May 20, 2016 | Last Updated: May 20 7:42 PM ET

Last week, from May 15 to 19, Copenhagen hosted the Women Deliver Conference, the world’s largest gathering on the well-being, health and rights of women and girls. The event attracted luminaries like Melinda Gates and Muhammad Yunus, as well as 5,500 odd delegates from all over the world. The National Post’s Alia Dharssi, who spent the week in Copenhagen, brings you  some key takeaways for Canada from the event.

1) In case you didn’t know it already, our prime minister is a social media whiz. 

Justin Trudeau made an impression — without showing up. At 1,066 retweets and 2,139 likes late Thursday, his tweet about the conference, which expressed best wishes to attendees and featured a short video of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau discussing the importance of women’s rights was one of the most popular, if not the most popular, tweet about Women Deliver.

2) Canada is a leader in maternal, newborn and child health, but its strategy has a major gap.

Since 2010, when Stephen Harper led the creation of the Muskoka Initiative to accelerate progress on improving maternal, child and newborn health, Canada has been recognized for taking  leadership and spending billions to savethe lives of mothers and babies.  But, it failed to invest in comprehensive family planning and contraceptives, a policy that seems set to change with the Trudeau government.

That’s a good thing because it’s a highly cost-effective way for Canada to heighten its impact, said Chris Elias, president of the global development program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, noting that there are about 225 million women in developing countries who want to delay or stop having children, but don’t have access to contraception. When women and girls (many poor mothers are teen brides) can’t space their births, they have babies when they’re younger and more quickly, putting their lives and those of their children at risk.

It’s also a matter of supporting women’s rights, said Sandeep Prasad, executive director of Action Canada for Sexual Health and Rights, adding that almost 22 million unsafe abortions take place annually, in great part because women don’t have the tools to make decisions about their bodies.

3) Canada is fostering life-saving inventions. 

“Canada has a proud history of investing in innovation and development,” said Peter Singer, chief executive officer of Grand Challenges Canada, noting that Trudeau’s mandate letter to the minister of international development called on her to make Canada a leader in innovation and development.

The charge is led by Grand Challenges, which channels money from the Canadian government to people with creative ideas to solve global development challenges. Four of 10 social enterprises selected in a global competition to present their ideas at Women Deliver received funding from the group.  They included Bempu, which manufactures a bracelet-like thermometer designed to detect newborn hypothermia, a major baby killer, and Kidogo, a social enterprise in East Africa that provides affordable, quality daycare to women in slums so they can go out and work.

4) The impact of Canada’s foreign aid is threatened by antimicrobial resistance. 

The deaths of mothers and children have been halved over the past two decades, thanks in part to contributions from Canada. But rising resistance to antibiotics threatens to backtrack much, if not all, of this progress. Poor sanitation in developing countries means mothers  re coming into health-care facilities colonized with bugs, says Liz Tayler, senior technical officer at the World Health Organization. The use of antibiotics in developing countries during the delivery of babies has played a huge role in cutting down deaths.

Now, with data showing that at least half the bugs in some countries are developing resistance to antibiotics — numbers as high as 80 per cent in some cases — the world is facing what could be a “silent tsunami,” Tayler said. The problem is that not enough people are paying attention. Even Tayler knew little about it as recently as eighteen months ago, when she was based at the U.K.’s Department for International Development, working with Canadian maternal and child health projects in Tanzania.

5) We don’t know much about some of the people Canada is helping.  

Like many countries represented at Women Deliver, Canada is looking to focus on adolescent girls, especially those living in poverty, whose rights are limited by factors like child marriage, sexual violence and a lack of access to education. The problem is we have little information about the health of these girls, the type of violence they face and what kind of income they have, among other issues.

“We only focus on what we measure,” said Caroline Riseboro, president and chief executive officer of Plan International Canada, a non-profit organization. “We haven’t been measuring the well-being of adolescent girls. They continue to remain the most vulnerable group on earth.”

That why Melinda Gates announced Tuesday the Gates Foundation would spend $80 million on closing the gender data gap. But good data won’t be available for a few years and, in the meantime, there will be a lot of guesswork.

6) Canada can learn from how other countries are tackling women’s issues. 

The agenda for Patty Hajdu, Canada’s minister of status of women, in Copenhagen included meeting representatives of Denmark and Finland that gave her ideas about how to improve legislation for women in Canada. Hajdu also listened to stories of poor women in developing countries that reminded her of some women in Canada, she told the National Post.

“What I’m taking away from the conversations about international communities that are struggling through poverty and a number of other issues that impact on gender equity, is that, within Canada, we have those same struggles within certain communities,” said Hajdu, noting some indigenous women live in-third-world conditions, lacking access to tap water, in overcrowded homes, and face “astronomical” rates of gender-based violence.