G7 development ministers hold historic meeting with young women activists

Canadian Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau hosts a meeting with the G-7 counterparts and six women leaders at the development ministerial in Whistler, British Columbia. Photo by: Global Affairs Canada

WHISTLER, Canada — G-7 development ministers Thursday listened while six young women leaders from around the world made a case for why the global aid community must do more for women and girls, in order to improve the standard of life for half the world’s population and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This is the first time such a dialogue has been part of the official program of G-7.  

Canadian development minister Marie-Claude Bibeau set this week’s agenda in accordance with Canada’s feminist foreign policy — putting the well-being and rights of women and girls at the center of every foreign policy decision.

She told Devex, that while development ministers are accustomed to being in the field, they are not used to having their beneficiaries sitting at the same conference table. This is why it was vital that the young women came to the ministerial to tell their stories in person, she said.

“They are here to speak for themselves,” Bibeau said.

“They shared their experience. They challenged the ministers. They talked about the importance of education — not looking at education only as being in class, but really everything around it: What does it take for a girl to get to school? And to stay in school? And, to have the opportunity to choose the career she wants and to be empowered.”

“As young people, we are ready to step up to [the] plate. We have been stepping up to the plate, but we don’t have the resources.”

— Irmine Fleury, G-7 speaker

As the president of the G-7, Canada sets the body’s 2018 agenda and ministerial schedule. This week’s meeting is the first time development ministers from seven of the world’s largest economies have been convened since 2010, and the first time they have met jointly with the finance ministers in the G-7 context. Heads of state meet next week for the G-7 Summit in Québec.

New G-7 voices

The six young women who spoke at a roundtable with development ministers in Whistler were chosen with the help of NGO partners, based on their strong community leadership and active role in advocating for the empowerment of women and girls. They are from Benin, Jamaica, South Africa, Mali, Lebanon, and Canada’s anishinaabekwe first nation. Devex is not publishing their last names due to security concerns.

The participants had the opportunity to share their personal stories as young women in developing nations, including the struggles they face in accessing things such as education and health services.

Irmine Fleury, a 23-year old from Benin, told Devex she asked the ministers to invest in young women leaders because they have the ability not only to drive change themselves, but to empower other young people in their communities.

“I also asked them to invest in an integrated approach to meeting the needs of girls and young women. It’s not only about investing in our education, it’s about investing to make sure our parents are aware of our needs and ensuring that we have access to health,” Irmine Fleury said.

“It’s a package. We can’t just look at education, we have to look at all the aspects, we have to look at the social aspects, the economic aspects, the psychological aspects. All of that together is what will contribute to development,” she continued.

Alnastazia, a 19-year-old university student from Jamaica, focused her comments on sexual and reproductive health, and the challenges of teen pregnancy and HIV in her home country. Part of the reason these problems persist, she said, is because development solutions aren’t always the correct match for the problem: A hub for youth was started in her community, but it was only open during the day when children were at school. This meant no one could actually access the services the center was attempting to provide.

“As young people, we are ready to step up to [the] plate. We have been stepping up to the plate, but we don’t have the resources,” she said.

Alnastazia said she told ministers: “We need help from you. You have resources that we need, you have the technical support that we need. Help us and trust us to do our jobs. We really need to put our young ladies at the forefront.”

Many of the young women said it was empowering to have the floor in front of the highest levels of global development policy.

“I saw this as an opportunity so that girls’ voices could be heard … by those who make the decisions on development spending,” said Aissata, a 23-year-old activist from Mali who focuses on ending child marriage and keeping girls in school.

“I finished by saying to them, that they need to act now because the problems that girls are facing will not wait. Every girl must have the freedom to dream, must have the freedom to learn, the freedom to direct, to be able to fulfill their potential and ultimately freedom to take control of their own lives.”

A dialogue with impact?

European Commission Director-General for Development and International Cooperation Stefano Manservisi told Devex that “Canada got it right” in focusing the G-7 ministerial on women and girls, which squares with priorities laid out in the SDGs. He said that gender-equal development policies must be implemented if those benchmarks are to be met.

“In our development policy … we put gender as the key driver for the implementation of the agenda 2030,” Manservisi told Devex.

“We’re not just paying lip service to this when we set up these priorities and these overarching drivers in the new development policy — the world is more than 50 percent women.”

According to a World Bank report, released this week and timed to the G-7 meetings, the world would be $160 trillion wealthier if women were able to participate in the labor force — when they want to — and were paid their market value. World Bank Chief Executive Officer Kristalina Georgieva told Devex the bank has long recognized the importance of financing projects that focus on women and girls.

“We think that highlighting this is actually pragmatic from the perspective of many countries. It becomes a critical condition for a sustainable middle-class increase,” Georgieva said.

“Investing in girls’ education is the best investment we can make in our future: Investing in girls and making sure that we make gender inequality history.”

Many of the young women felt the ministers truly heard the message they delivered. But even though the meeting is over, they expect the dialogue to continue — and for the seven countries to incorporate what they heard into their development policy. The meeting wasn’t just a conversation, but a call to action.

“I need to see at least a plan coming out of it to say that OK, ‘this is what we’re going to do, this is how much money we’re setting aside for it, this is what you need to do, this is the outcome, this is how we’re going to measure [it],’” Alnastazia said.

“Because we need to assess it to see how effective the plan is.”

“I also want this to not just be a commitment from the officials that we spoke to today,” Irmine Fleury said.

“I want this to be communicated to the leaders who are meeting at the G-7 summit next week, and that this be a commitment that’s taken forward by those leaders as well.”

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    Teresa Welsh

    Teresa Welsh is a reporter with Devex based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining Devex, Teresa wrote about Latin America from McClatchy's Washington Bureau and covered foreign affairs for U.S. News and World Report. She worked as a reporter in Colombia, where she previously lived teaching English. Teresa earned bachelor of arts degrees in journalism and Latin American studies from the University of Wisconsin.