As a woman in power I challenge myself every day, and I extend this challenge to all current female leaders – particularly my sisters in the Commonwealth – to have the courage and indomitable will to create avenues of equality for all our women and girls; to fashion a culture where women are respected and accepted for their ability to positively contribute to society. I strongly believe that unless women and girls are given the opportunity to achieve their full potentials, our communities and nations will not achieve the levels of development and prosperity of which they are capable.’ –
The Honourable Kamla Persad-Bissessar, Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago and Commonwealth Chairperson-in-Office
Commonwealth Day, celebrated on the second Monday of March every year, is an opportunity to promote understanding on global issues, international co-operation and the work of the Commonwealth’s organisations, which aim to improve the lives of its citizens. Over the past 30 years, the day has been an opportunity to learn about and explore not only the history of the Commonwealth, but also current concerns shared by Commonwealth countries. Last year’s theme was ‘Science, Technology and Society’, and this was the subject of numerous events and activities around around the Commonwealth throughout 2010, starting with the Commonwealth Day Observance attended by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. On announcing the theme for Commonwealth Day 2011, ‘Women as Agents of Change’, Commonwealth Secretary-General Kamalesh Sharma argued that women and girls hold the key to sustained development and improving the lives of everyone: ‘To change a woman’s life for the better is to unlock the potential to change and lift a whole society’.
The Director of the Social Transformation Programmes Division at the Commonwealth Secretariat, Dr Sylvia Anie, made a similar point: ‘[This year’s theme] is integral to the mandate of the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality 2005-2015, which is set on the premise that empowering women as key change agents is essential for the achievement of economic, social and political development.’
Along with several other organisations including the United Nations, the Commonwealth has for decades invested in the welfare of women and girls. Countless programmes have provided health care, educational opportunities, skills training and more, to ensure that their places in – and opportunities to contribute to – the societies in which they reside are not compromised because of their gender.
Speaking with some women regarding the 2011 theme, I was able to gather their views on how they perceived its potential to effect change. HE Kamela Palma, the High Commissioner for Belize, believes that leaders at the forthcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Perth should discuss measures to ensure that the plan of action for ‘Women as Agents of Change’ does indeed become reality, and moreover lead the way in global action.
‘In many countries, women have been the hidden face of our positive development,’ Ms Palma stated. ‘It is the women who have sacrificed to obtain for their children the educational and health opportunities they never could have had for themselves. Yet, these women – especially the rural poor – remain hidden. Investing in women and girls would place them on an equal playing field. Such educational investments would allow our girls to dare to think outside of the box. It will allow them the vision and certitude in themselves to enter what, in many of our countries, is seen as a man’s domain – the arenas of science, technology, economics, politics, leadership and decision-making – without fear. I commend the theme “Women as Agents of Change” and as a woman myself, I will take on the mantle, at whatever cost, to promote this vision so that it truly becomes a reality’.
Janet Charles, Acting High Commissioner for the Commonwealth of Dominica, is of the view that improving the lives of women represents an investment in the future of their societies: ‘Women are increasingly agents of change. Over generations, women have been the centre of family life, which transcends to society. We have witnessed women as arbiters of peace and reconciliation, not only in daily family life but in social institutions. More and more women are now at the helm of politics and hold key positions in business. Some have become world leaders and champions of human rights issues. They have brought change or have influenced the governance of our society, through changes in laws and the way business is conducted. When a woman’s life is changed positively, the family benefits, the community benefits, the country benefits and the world benefits.’
One success story in working for this cause is the Commonwealth Countries’ League, which through its Education Fund (CCLEF) has excelled in fostering the skills necessary to bring about change by investing in the education of girls throughout the Commonwealth. I had the opportunity to interview Ladi Dariya, a beneficiary of the CCLEF whose story has inspired many more to support the cause and help transform the lives of other women and girls. Ms Dariya reflected on her own situation and the 2011 Commonwealth Day theme: ‘The world over, women have struggled to achieve what society places out of their reach. Perhaps it is a tangential thought that when societies face famine, poverty and economic ruin, the woman’s lot can becomes worse. Women are tired of bearing the brunt during bad times in what is essentially a man’s world. Women want to be partners in the world’s progress into a changed world. Education makes a difference to a girl, her family and her community’.
Ms Dariya applauded the work of the CCLEF, which grants scholarships to girls of high academic ability who are unable to provide for their own education due to their unfortunate economic situation. (The CCLEF’s largest fundraiser is the annual Commonwealth Fair, held every November at the Kensington Town Hall, which many readers will be familiar with.) The first female doctor in Tonga was educated by the CCLEF, and there are many more success stories where the girls return to their villages to teach and to provide a sound educational base, because they realise that attaining educational achievement can indeed change girls’ lives and, in turn, their own countries. As Jennifer Tiwari of the Royal Commonwealth Society in Ottawa, Canada, concluded: ‘To be agents of change, it is important to have the skills to lead change.’
So, where do we go from here?
It is important to realise that the process of change must ultimately extend to nations’ decision-making processes; national programmes encouraging women to enter politics and influence the system at a parliamentary level are therefore essential. Many Commonwealth countries still need to implement such programmes.
It remains, then, for those women who have already overcome the considerable obstacles to achieving success, becoming professionals in their own right, to champion the cause of those women and girls who remain marginalised, reluctant to enter the political arena, hesitant to speak out for their families and still afraid to become agents of change. In the words of Ms Persad-Bissessar, ‘…women and girls must be given the chance to succeed.’