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UNESCO Conference in Paris: Fostering Women’s Empowerment and Leadership

In June Barbara Cleary EWL Managing Committee member and member of UK Joint Committee on Women in the UK represented EWL at a high level conference in Paris organised by UNESCO - Fostering Women’s Empowerment and Leadership. This is her story.

Gender equality is one of UNESCO’s two global priorities. Throughout the day we celebrated UNESCO’s achievements and the achievements of those participating in the conference and identified promising pathways for inclusive and innovative UNESCO partnerships to work on women and girls’ empowerment and leadership. UNESCO reaffirmed its promise and commitment to advance gender equality - see UNESCO’s Promise on Gender Equality statement. Building on its wealth of experience and using its soft power, UNESCO is determined to scale up existing initiatives and good practices that have been successfully implemented over the last decade and to identify new areas, new approaches and new modalities that have the potential to deliver substantial results in the field of women’s empowerment in the years to come.

Irina Bokova, Director–General of UNESCO, set the tone for the meeting. She said the empowerment of women and girls is the new frontier for human rights in the 21st century. Development is not sustainable if inequality prevails. Gender equality means that every girl should have the genuine possibility to become everything they wish for and make their own informed choices. The journey starts in school – access to a quality education and information. According to statistics 62 million girls are denied the right to an education. Many receive primary education but are prevented from continuing to secondary education.

UNESCO soft power TODAY conference banner

Recently Gloria Steinem joined us at our General Assembly in Brussels and to mark 20 years of the EWL Observatory on Violence against Women. It was interesting how her words resonated again in Paris.

“The story or every women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to anyone organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights”.

We heard from some incredible keynote speakers including H.E. Ms Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca; President of the Republic of Malta; H.E. Ms Rula Ghani, First Lady of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan; H.E. Ms Tarja Halonen, Former President of the Republic of Finland; HRH Princess Petra Laurentien of the Netherlands; H.E. Ms Aminata Toure former Prime Minister of the Republic of Senegal; and Ms Tzipi Livni Former Foreign Minister of the State of Israel. The courage, determination and passion shown by all the speakers was inspirational and their commitment to continue the journey and battle the challenges that we all face for gender equality.

They all stressed the importance of education, the need for women to be represented in national Parliaments and at the decision making tables, the need to encourage men to be vocal and speak out, the need to robustly challenge the stereotypical ways women and men are presented and how patriarchal societies deprive all members of society. Partnership working and sharing our successes and best practice and presenting a collective voice to spearhead change is key in all our thinking.

Women have been agents of change throughout the ages
. Women need to take confidence from this in their pursuit for gender equality. We were all reminded of Prime Minister Trudeau responding to a question about feminism …” I’m a feminist because it’s the 21 century”. Prime Minister Trudeau has gone on to achieve gender equality in his parliament in terms of numbers of representatives. It’s not just about numbers. This is reinforced by the work EWL are doing to campaign to improve representation of women in governments in Europe and in the forthcoming European Parliament elections and organisations in the UK.

Barbara Cleary & Irina Bokova at UNESCO meeting

The conference featured parallel sessions looking at women’s empowerment from different perspectives: education, peace and security, women’s leadership in the private and public sectors, and the importance of breaking gender stereotypes. In these parallel sessions participants presented state of the art innovation through their experiences and work, discussed the challenges and innovative solutions towards the 2030 horizon and provided recommendations on UNESCO’s role in promoting gender equality in the years to come.

We were invited to join the Panel looking at Breaking Gender Stereotypes – challenging the Status Quo. Michael Kimmel Distinguished Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies Stony Brook University USA was the keynote speaker. He spoke about how powerful the HeForShe campaign had been engaging men and the work of Men Engage to end violence against women. It was his belief that the more men start to think like fathers the greater will be the momentum for engagement and change.

We were joined on our panel by an inspirational young film maker Zuriel Oduwole. She is passionate about girls’ education and has been an advocate through her film making and campaign work since age 11. Zuriel is age 14. You can read more about her impressive story and view a trailer of her film - A promising Africa here
Overall in the session we explored the negative impact of gender stereotyping for women and men. We identified the need for positive images in education material, family friendly work environments, and the effect of positive role models for women and men. We explored the power of the media, and the challenges emanating from digital/social media. As part of the efforts around the 2030 Agenda, in 2016, UN Women launched the Step it Up for Gender Equality Media Compactin March 2016, which is calling on media outlets to play their part in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Agenda. See also the Unstereotype Alliance working to eliminate discrimination in advertising launched in June this year.

We also had the opportunity to visit the exhibition HERstory telling the stories of inspiring and pioneering women at the UN who have made significant contributions and lasting achievements in their advocacy for gender equality and women’s empowerment. UNESCO will use the findings from the workshops to inform their work programme.

Written by Barbara Cleary, EWL Executive Member


At EWL tackling gender stereotyping is firmly embedded in all our work. Acting as a forum for increased exchange, cooperation and integration, EWL exists as a platform to support the women’s organisations of Europe to play an active role in shaping a European framework for gender equality. EWL envisions a society in which women’s contribution to all aspects of life is recognised, rewarded and celebrated - in leadership, in care and in production; all women have self-confidence, freedom of choice, and freedom from violence and exploitation; and no woman or girl is left behind.

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