At Women Deliver this week, much of the focus has been on issues like collecting better data on gender and the importance of economic empowerment and access to education. These are absolutely critical issues for women and girls around the world, and effective interventions in these areas can make major advancements in women’s rights. But truly revolutionary and course-changing discussions are also happening on the sidelines.
In quiet rooms and smaller panels and workshops throughout the week, a different conversation has been happening—one with the potential to be truly transformative. In these spaces, participants have been talking about tackling the systemic issues that undervalue women and girls and challenging gender norms and power dynamics that prevent them from realizing their human rights.
At one side event, the organization CREA—an International Women’s Health Coalition partner—led a popular and lively discussion about sexual pleasure. While on the surface it seemed more lighthearted than surrounding sessions on violence and poverty, the session touched on serious and deeply-rooted issues of shame and stigma that surround female sexuality and pleasure. One panelist called pleasure the ultimate form of self-determination.
In a panel before the official conference kick-off, Willie Parker—well-known U.S. OB/GYN, abortion provider, and defender of human rights—warned assembled activists against using the “politics of respectability.” Instead of trying to fit our social values into the mainstream narrative, we should be challenging the mainstream. While it can be tactically useful to paint a sympathetic portrait of a 12-year old who has been raped and needs an abortion, Dr. Parker emphasized the danger of using language that buys into dichotomies between “blameless” women who deserve to be able to get an abortion and women who should suffer the consequences of their choices. We need to challenge such gender and social norms, not mold our advocacy to fit into problematic—and patriarchal—constructs.
Women Deliver has brought together leaders, activists, advocates, and thinkers to make commitments about women’s empowerment, health and human rights. Participants are here to talk about progress and to celebrate feminism without apology. This is a space where abortion isn’t a dirty word and substantive discussions can happen.
As we look to the future, the women’s movement needs to capitalize on the platform provided by conferences like Women Deliver and focus its attention on discussions of gender and power. We need to go beyond “safe” issues like education and economics and address the structural factors that prevent women from fully realizing their human rights. We will have to move conversations about challenging sexism and patriarchy and changing power dynamics out of side rooms and onto center stage, into keynote addresses and into the headlines.