Embracing the F-word?

Embracing the F-word?

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Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images

Two things struck me when I saw Beyoncé’s performance at the VMA’s last year. First, perhaps this would finally begin to turn the tide for the word “Feminist”. For those who weren’t watching: she ended an amazing performance with the F-word in giant illuminated letters behind her on stage. It’s a word dogged by misinterpretation, and long overdue for reclamation. (Really? You’re not for gender equality?)

Second: it raised a question for me about how we get more people campaigning on gender rights. After all, if ONE’s mission is to end extreme poverty and preventable disease by 2030 this will only be possible by dramatically improving the situation of women. The same issue is at the heart of the new global development goals that will be agreed this year.

We wanted some expert advice on how we could better mobilize around these issues. Cut to Davos, Switzerland, home of the World Economic Forum – not a natural setting for an activist, but a place where some great minds do meet. A group of the best generously offered their time to discuss this challenge, including Melinda Gates, Helene Gayle and Sheryl Sandberg. Here’s what was discussed:

1. It’s the economy, stupid…

We can make all the moral arguments we want but numbers matter, whether in London or Lagos. Female farmers get less access to inputs and services than male farmers. That’s unjust, and it’s inefficient. Closing the gender gap could increase yields by 20-30% and reduce the number of hungry people by 100-150 million people. And when a girl in the developing world gets seven or more years of education, she marries four years later, and has 2.2 fewer children. If all women had secondary education, there could be half the number of child deaths every year.

2. Women’s events can’t just be side events

These issues should be center stage. How can we talk about agriculture in Africa, for example, and not talk about women smallholder farmers? Yet that happens.

3. Women are the best activists

At ONE, women make up the majority of our membership. They are 63% of our Facebook fans, 62% of our Youth Ambassadors and 80% of our Campus chapter leaders. And they are more active, taking tougher actions like meeting with politicians. The great opportunity we have is to build a strong movement of women for women – the challenge is not to exclude men.

4. We need to enroll men and boys in change at every level

It’s not enough to change laws or make investments. We also have to tackle behavioral and cultural change. Melinda Gates’s recent article in the journal Science says it all.

5. We need women leaders everywhere, at every level

As host of the G7, Chancellor Merkel might just be the most important person on the planet this year – she has said promising things, but we will need to encourage her to be ambitious. The same goes for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as Chair of the African Union, another strong woman. It’s the same when we focus on grassroots realities – we need women to have power at every level, at home and abroad, in politics and in business. Problem is, the numbers don’t look great. At Davos itself, only 17% of attendees were female.

6. The gender data crisis

We don’t know enough about women living in extreme poverty. We don’t even know how many there are. They are marginalized so much we barely know anything about them. For women to count, we have to be able to count them, and then help them hold power accountable. We need better data about what works and better evidence that shows the multiplier effect of placing woman and girls at the center of development issues. See the excellent DATA2X effort from Hillary Clinton and Mike Bloomberg. And check out No Ceilings, which is working with global partners to build an evidence-based case for the full participation of women and girls.

Questions are easy: getting answers will be harder. With these insights and with the help of partners in the coming months we plan to do much more campaigning on these issues. Women will be at the heart of what ONE will do this year, with a big kick off on International Women’s Day – watch this space. I hope you’ll join us.

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