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Grassroots Women’s Movements Just Got $20 Million in Funding to Combat Gender Inequality

The Goalkeepers Conference is trying to support the role of women in facilitating change.

by Emily Weitz
Oct 5 2017, 4:30pm

When millions of women gathered in Washington, D.C. last January to ensure that their voices were heard in the conversation about where the world was going, it was not the first time women's movements emerged as a powerful form of protest and change. When Bill and Melinda Gates hosted world leaders and activists as part of Goalkeepers 2017, they kicked off a day of collaborations and conversations with the topic that births it all: women's role in facilitating change.

"When we started the foundation in 2000," said Melinda Gates in her introduction, "we were focused on technology and global health. What we didn't realize was how gender equality fits into that equation. We learned a lesson that the world is slowly waking up to: gender equality is a prerequisite for progress."

Now, creating gender equality is one of the 17 SDGs, and it's measured through education, equal pay, women elected to public office, and more. But gender equality isn't only about fairness and justice for half the human race: creating gender equality will also fuel the movements towards all our common goals.

"None of us can move forward if half of us are held back," said Gates. "Women are some of the most important change-makers in the world. They help lift their families out of poverty... Women have become masters of grassroots change."

Leymah Gbowee, who won a Nobel Prize for leading a women's movement to end the Civil War in Liberia, when many warring factions of men could not find resolution, is this kind of changemaker. While groups of men kept killing one another in a fight for peace, Gbowee looked to the women.

"We women in these communities are the nurturers of society," said Gbowee. "Instead of starting a women's warring faction, we started a women's peace movement."


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And it worked. The movement grew, and through direct action, prayer, and peaceful protest, the Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, which consisted of Muslims and Christians, were heard by leaders working on peace talks in Ghana. Their work led to the peaceful resolution of the conflict, and the election of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first female president of an African nation.

Gbowee is not going anywhere, and the battles for equality are far from over. Now, she advocates for a new look at aid, and she's unabashed about bringing her ideas to the top.
"I'm an expert in my community," she told Gates. "I don't need someone to give me money and tell me how to spend it… it's time to reimagine grassroots women's work, peace, and security."

Gates heard her plea. Later in the day, when she was sitting with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Gates announced that $20 million of funding from the Gates Foundation would be directed at grassroots women's movements. Trudeau recently announced that Canada will invest $150 million in grassroots women's organizations worldwide. He also made one of his first actions as prime minister to hire 15 women to cabinet posts, making his cabinet gender-equal.

"When you have a panel with one woman on it," he said, "that woman has to speak for all women. Now we have enough women that we have perspectives that are sufficiently diverse and sufficiently wide-ranging."

Trudeau said he believes that men's roles in women's empowerment is crucial, but men have to stop seeing it as a women's issue.

"If there is an imbalance, which there is, of men having more strength and more weight to their words in an unfair way," he said, "then men have to be part of the solution in using that weight and strength that they were unfairly given to realign the balance."

Nicholas Kristof, who co-wrote the book Half the Sky with his wife Sheryl WuDunn, spoke on the panel with Gbowee, and his views echo these sentiments.

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"One of the historic challenges of these issues is that they tend to be marginalized," said Kristof. "The brutal truth is that if only women are addressing these issues, women will continue to be marginalized. These are human rights issues that affect us all."

He believes the key to connecting everyone to these issues is by showing them that it's not only the right thing to do, but the smart thing to do.

"I think we can get more men behind these issues because of self-interest," he said. "You don't need to convince a bird to fly with two wings; it just works better."

Young women from around the world spoke of the ways they're creating change in their own communities - from Malala Yusafzai, who caught the attention of the world when she stood up to the Taliban to demand her education to Bina Maseno, who created Badili Africa to empower women and girls to engage in politics.

"What would it look like if we tapped into the potential of these women's movements and we finally started giving them the investments and the full attention that they deserve?" asked Gates. "World leaders need to know if they're serious about creating a better future they need to take these movements seriously too."

To learn more about the SDGs, head to the Goalkeepers site created by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.