Former President Barack Obama was there, expressing disapproval of Republicans' attempts to repeal his health care reform and "inflict real human suffering" on American citizens. Canadian prime minister and self-proclaimed feminist Justin Trudeau came to urge the audience to "break down stereotypes that hold women back." But some of the most compelling voices at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's inaugural Goalkeepers event in New York City yesterday belonged to women in less conventional positions of power. Women like Birmingham's own Oxford-bound activist Malala Yousafzai, and Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee — both of whom, like Obama, have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Goalkeepers coincided with the release of the foundation's first annual report tracking the progress of the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (also known as SDGs or Global Goals). The report showed progress in areas like infant mortality, maternal health, family planning, and vaccinations. The aim of achieving gender equality by 2030 — a goal shared by the UN's HeForShe campaign, which also convened yesterday — may require a more complex approach, however.
That's where Gbowee and Yousafzai fit in. Both women appeared in the "Still I Rise: The Power of Women's Movements" session moderated by Melinda Gates, who emphasised the importance of investing in female leaders working "on the frontline."
“Gender equality is a prerequisite for progress on every other issue that we all care about," Gates told the audience. "None of us can move forward if half of us are held back. So if you want a healthier, better world, you need to put women and girls at the centre of the agenda."
Gbowee is one such grassroots activist. Credited with helping to end the second Liberian civil war in 2003, she spoke of a female volunteer tending to the same boy soldier who had slain her own child. It's an example of putting love over hate for the greater good, Gbowee noted, and demonstrates why she and other Liberian women needed to "come and bring some sense and sensibility to the process."
Kenyan journalist and community leader Bina Maseno next urged African women to enter politics. She was followed by Yousafzai, who shared her experience of fighting for girls' access to classrooms globally.
"If one girl with an education can change the world, what can 130 million do?" the 20-year-old author and activist asked. "They can grow economies, improve the air we breathe, cut in half the risk of violent conflicts, and advance public health. Over and over, studies show that girls are the answer to the most pressing problems. But here’s the truth: None of the goals we’re discussing today... can be achieved unless we educate girls.
"There are no straight lines and no overnight solutions to getting 130 million girls in school," she continued. "This is because [of] barriers to girls’ education, such as poverty, war, child marriage. But I believe we can do it. I believe we can see every girl in school in my lifetime, because I believe in local activists and champions."
Those "local activists and champions" would include Ria Sharma, who supports survivors of acid attacks in her native India; Marieme Jamme, a Senegalese survivor of human trafficking who has gone on to teach African women and girls to code; and Laura Ulloa, who works to reintegrate former Colombian guerrillas into society. All were honoured at the Goalkeepers Global Goals Awards dinner on Tuesday.
As inspiring and extraordinary as these women are, there are plenty more like them across the world — unsung heroes who are putting in the work, but need support.
"We need to invest in the next generation of Malalas," Pakistani activist Gulalai Ismail told the crowd, moments before Gates announced that significant corporate donations had been pledged to "accelerate" the Global Goals' progress.
Gbowee shared a similar sentiment: "There are many Leymahs out there waiting to be Nobel laureates, waiting to meet Melinda and Bill Gates."
If gender equality is to actually become a reality by 2030, we need to provide those Malalas and Leymahs with a platform — and perhaps, step up and become a Malala or Leymah ourselves.