Inside the World’s Biggest Meeting on Women’s Advancement

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The Crown Princess Mary of Denmark speaking at Women Deliver.
The Crown Princess Mary of Denmark speaking at Women Deliver.Photo: Dayna Evans

The world’s largest and most comprehensive conference on women’s global equality is happening this week in Copenhagen, Denmark. Women Deliver, which opened its fourth edition on Monday, is the largest meeting of advocates for women and girls in the world since its last occurrence in 2013. The conference is held every three years (the previous one took place in Malaysia), and it’s no coincidence that this year it found its home in Denmark, which was recently voted the best place in the world to be a woman. Must be nice.

I’m here as a fellow on behalf of the U.N. Foundation and an eager consumer of the panels, meetings, cultural events, and strategic sessions that focus on the empowerment and enlightenment of women across the globe. Each day, in addition to stories that come out of the meetings, the Cut will share a handful of details, sound bites, and pieces of valuable information that come to light during the course of the conference’s events. Here is a dispatch from day one.

Climate change is a women’s issue. One of the hot-button topics at this year’s Women Deliver is climate change, which is starting to be acknowledged as an issue that disproportionately affects women. A report published by the U.N.’s Population Fund found that women and children are 14 times more likely to die than men in natural disasters. Women are more frequently first responders than men because women are more likely to be in the home when disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, and other climate-change-related disasters strike.

Oftentimes, issues seemingly disconnected from women (like roads and town infrastructure) can be a cause of maternal mortality. Jerker Liljestrand, an OB/GYN and a senior program officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, explained that “roads have an effect on maternal health.” Every day, according to the WHO, 830 women die from preventable causes related to childbirth and pregnancy, and 99 percent of those women live in developing countries. Liljestrand said one of the reasons for the high rate of maternal mortality is that poorly paved roads that connect women in rural areas to health facilities in more populated areas can be a fatal obstacle. If a woman is having complications during childbirth and must be transported to a safer facility than her home, poor roads may cause dangerous issues.

This may be the only place on Earth where male feminists are not groan-worthy, self-promoting opportunists. Throughout the sessions on Sunday and the early meetings on Monday, many of the men I talked to were plainspoken in their commitment to promoting women’s rights. A male Ugandan journalist led me through the effect that forcing women into child marriage can have on women’s overall development. At the conference’s opening plenary, Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UNFPA, said that men should not be afraid to cry. “Men are very frightened,” he said, speaking to male fear of women’s achievement. “It’s okay for a woman to be first in her class.” Zimbabwean activist Yemurai Nyoni, one of the conference’s youth advocates, agreed. “My strength is not defined by the weakness of others,” he said with a thoughtful expression on his face. “She can be the fullest expression of herself.” Indian news anchor Barkha Dutt, who had been moderating the session, added that Nyoni’s affirmation was the key to feminism. “Feminism is the freedom to be yourself.”

Feminism isn’t a dirty word, but it hasn’t been beaten into the discussion either. “It’s always surprised me how people seem to have such very big notions about feminism. This is a great challenge for all of us,” Annie Lennox, the HIV/AIDS activist and iconic singer-songwriter, said at the opening plenary. “I think it’s a great term. I don’t think it’s going to change. We must keep this word, and we all have a part to play.” Lennox went on to tell a story about a women’s event at which she asked a crowd of 400 women to stand up and acknowledge they were all feminists. “I stood at the podium and I said, ‘Okay, I’m a feminist. Everybody in the room stand up in solidarity, we’re all going to stand up in this great moment.’ Half of the room stood still.” Lennox was aghast. The host of the Women Deliver event that Lennox was speaking at decided to test this theory herself. Dutt asked the crowd of nearly 5,000 global leaders, advocates, journalists, and policymakers to stand if they were feminists. Not one person stayed seated.

So, what about Hillary Clinton? Hillary Clinton has been a bit of a prickly topic so far. While some women I spoke to were convinced she was no better for women’s advancement than any willing participant in the patriarchy, the former first female prime minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, said Clinton has the experience to get the job. “Does it strike you as strange that it’s such a big deal whether Hillary Clinton becomes president or not? That in the first world, they can’t get over a woman leading their country?” Dutt asked her in the opening session. After telling an anecdote of another female politician years ago who had not been trusted because of her gender, Brundtland explained that Clinton “knows what it takes. I think that the U.S. could be ready.” We’ll see.