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Low turnout at London CWF fails to achieve full potential of excellent agenda

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Thursday, 10 May 2018 00:00

Commonwealth Secretary General swings to the Sister Sledge rendition


By Charnika Imbulana in London 

The 2018 Commonwealth Women’s Forum (CFW) was the second to be held, also as a lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) ‘18 in London. The first ever CFW was held in Malta in 2015, as a run up to CHOGM, running parallel with the Forums of ; People’s, Youth and Business. The CWF was created in response to a proposal from the 10th meeting of the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Meeting of 2013. 

2015 Malta’s first ever CWF was a very successful launch, so well organised and was packed to capacity. Malta gave an excellent start with the platform for women spelling out some of the global challenges faced by women and an outcomes document put out that was equally impressive.

As part of a wider commitment, in the 2018 London CWF, the intention was to “leave no one behind” in the Commonwealth journey to achieving gender equality by 2030.

The London CWF Agenda was excellent, the speech of Secretary General Patricia Scotland, exhilarating. Her opening line by way of a song, of Sister Sledge: “We are family, I got all my sisters with me, We are family, Get up everybody and sing”…got the audience in the mood and that kick started to what was to be a good three-day interaction on common women’s issues of 53 countries.  

If the Women’s Forum is held to draw international delegates from the Commonwealth and the rest of the world to highlight women’s positive political, economic and societal contributions and establish how women and girls being key to building sustainable and resilient societies, then the numbers matter.

However the turn-out at the London’s Commonwealth Women’s Forum was extremely low. It fell short of the number of delegates expected. Therefore it was widely acknowledged that in fair assessment, although the agenda was excellent, the platform well set for such was not made use of to its full potential. 

The CWF will have to seriously reflect on it. The interaction and discussions are paramount and there needs to be numbers representing from all of the 53 countries that Commonwealth is comprised of. It is an area that needs to be looked into if it is an all-inclusive Commonwealth that is being targeted.

Increase in participation important

Were the issues of all of the Commonwealth women sufficiently voiced? Well represented at the CWF? If not, solutions must be sought for it to not reoccur. This is equally important as much as the agenda. The whole purpose is to give the Commonwealth Heads an outcomes document that is comprehensive, where the wider spectrum has participated and the voices have been heard, and made note of. 

I was fortunate to not only be a witness but feel the excitement, the enthusiasm and the interactions and the efforts at the first ever Women’s Forum in Malta in 2015 because, not only was I reporting on the historic event, I was also a delegate at the first ever Women’s Forum in Malta in 2015, representing the Royal Commonwealth Society of Sri Lanka of which I am a Council member. 

I wore three caps in the last CHOGM CWF, as a delegate and a member of the Presidential media team and also as an international journalist representing a leading business newspaper of my country. From each perspective, the view in Malta was beautiful. 

The CWF 2015 was vibrant, active, involved, and productive and result oriented – all because there was strong interaction with the audience, the hall was packed to over and above capacity. Some didn’t even have seats, and it didn’t even matter to them. 

This time one third of the seats in the hall was empty and the international media was given the last row of seats but hurriedly were told to come over to the front when the Secretary General was to speak, in order to merely have the seats filled for the photographs.

I deliberately did not register for the Women’s Forum London 2018, although as a Council member I was nominated to represent the Commonwealth Society in Sri Lanka. The reason was only because I wanted to be objective in my reporting of the CWF for its greater good, so that I can review its progress, therefore my application I restricted to only for media accreditation.  

Opportunities for stronger interaction

The purpose of the CWF is to affirm high-level support and direct top-level policies for gender equality and women’s rights, for women to be given the opportunity to interact with leaders and for the Commonwealth’s commitments to gender equality to be positioned high on the agenda for Heads of Government.

The ambitious agenda of the CWF provides a platform for turning the political aspirations of the Heads of Government into a reality. The Forum puts forward the case that achieving gender equality in all areas, including the economic and productive sectors of the Commonwealth, is a prerequisite for building prosperous societies.

Therefore to achieve an all-inclusive Commonwealth, this aspect of the attendees for the event must be kept in mind. Now that I have made my contribution of constructive criticism let me now give the information on areas where there was indeed good progress.  

The 2018 CWF addressed the theme of ‘An empowered future for women and girls’. 

The theme signalled a clear message that gender equality, women’s rights, and women’s empowerment are goals and means towards achieving sustainable development as pursued through the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  

The program included substantive plenary sessions and parallel workshops providing the opportunity for participants to focus on specific areas including:


  • Women in leadership
  • Women, peace and security
  • Women’s economic empowerment
  • Gender parity in education
  • Ending violence against women and girls
  • Eliminating harmful practices 


Common forum for all forums – an excellent idea

A common platform for all forums for one session of the forums introduced for the first time in the London 2018 was an excellent idea. It presented an opportunity to network with participants from the other three Forums (Business, People’s and Youth). 

Leaders take action on key issues of Outcomes Document

Heads of Government in outlining their 2018 commitments affirmed that gender equality is critical in realising the 2030 Agenda for sustainable development and the aspirations of the Commonwealth Charter.

They emphasised that the full scale economic and political participation of all irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status, is essential for democracy and sustainable development to thrive. The Heads also acknowledged the role of civil society organisations, including women’s rights organisations in this context.


Gender equality and inclusion

Leaders committed to ratifying and implementing the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) through legislation, policies and programmes that mainstream and promote gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls in social, economic and political life. 

Meanwhile as per the status of Sri Lanka viz-a viz CEDAW; as it stood last year at, the UN Committee’s 66th review it was observed that Sri Lanka has to bring its domestic legal framework in line with the CEDAW convention first signed in 1981. The UN Committee has asked the State to report back with steps it has taken to rectify the issues they stipulated concerning this within two years. The next CEDAW review has been set for 2021.    

CHOGM Heads said they are encouraged by continuing action by member countries and Commonwealth bodies to prevent and eliminate sexual and gender-based violence; child, early and forced marriage; and female genital mutilation as barriers to the development and full realisation of girls’ and women’s human rights and to sustainable growth and development. The Heads also encouraged support for already married girls, adolescents and women who have been affected by such practices.

The leaders highlighted the achievement of the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games as the world’s first multi-sport event to offer an equal number of medals for both men and women, and acknowledged the Games featured the largest integrated Sports program in Commonwealth Games history, comprising 18 sports and seven para-sports. Commonwealth Heads urged sporting institutions at all levels to work towards gender equality across sports. 

Bineta Diop, African Union Commission special envoy for women, peace and security made a comment: “Women are the backbone of society. When conflict erupts, men are fighting or run away… Women come to pick up the pieces.”

It’s the women who ought to come in their thousands for such a Forum, especially made for them, “to pick up the pieces”, as it were. Our first duty is to have that fair share of the number on that world platform, created especially for them.

With the next CHOGM in 2020 to be held in Rwanda, I strongly believe that the Women’s Forum will regain its lost glory and pick up the numbers in a big way. When Rwanda is topping the UN list of countries with most women in parliament, with an impressive record of 68% of female politicians and described as the number one country for women in power, how could it not?

For all CWF enthusiasts in the entirety of the Commonwealth, all roads then will lead to only Kigali, come 2020. See you all there!

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