There’s something about the energy of an expectant crowd that’s hard to replicate anywhere else in life.  Whether you’re waiting in the dark for your favourite band to start a set, watching as your team moves into scoring position during a tied game, or stretching out on a blanket just before the fireworks begin—the rush of knowing you’re in a group of people all on the edge of their seats is electrifying.

Just a few weeks ago, I took my seat at the opening session of Women Deliver and felt that rush all over again. I crammed into the Vancouver Convention Centre along with 7,000 delegates from around the world while technicolor lights shot around the room and dance music blared over the speakers.

Women Deliver is the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women. I was so privileged to be able to attend this year in my home country of Canada.

In that sea of people, I knew I was surrounded by some of the most inspiring minds working to end gender inequality and discrimination around the world, including my Born on Time colleagues from Canada, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali.

I thought of Meryem, a community leader who was married at 12 years old, now fighting to end child marriage in Ethiopia. I thought of Sifat, a young male champion and ally of women and girls in Bangladesh who advocates for equality. And I thought of Ruth, a committed midwife in Mali whose life’s work has been dedicated to empowering women and adolescent girls throughout their lives. All of these gender equality champions are key to Born on Time’s work to empower women and girls, and they were on my heart and mind the whole week.

It was a surreal experience.

That session ignited a week of thought-provoking, galvanizing and at times uncomfortable dialogue, as delegates grappled with how best to use our individual and collective power towards a more gender equal world.

As I attended sessions, answered questions at our Born on Time booth, walked the exhibitor’s hall and worked with our team to host our own side event, I was struck by the power of five things:

  1. The power of consistency

Gender inequality has been a scourge of our world for millennia. The beliefs, attitudes and behaviours that must shift to allow room for equal participation are myriad and will require no less than complete paradigm shifts for many of us. At Women Deliver, I met countless individuals who have spent years, decades, and even whole lives in the pursuit of gender equality. It is this day-in, day-out dedication that will inevitably transform minds, which in turn will transform communities and societies at large.

  1. The power of sharing stories

Work that is focused on staring down injustice, discrimination and socio-cultural barriers can often feel overwhelming and at times even isolating. Over the week, I witnessed new life breathed into many front-line gender equality workers and advocates who had a chance to share struggles, swap success stories and take to the stage to highlight the plight of women and girls too often overlooked, dismissed or entirely forgotten. The posture of intentional listening at the conference gave room for powerful voices to speak truth to power in a breathtaking way. If you need a clear example, check out Tasha Wang Mwansa at minute 52:00 of the opening session ( Now tell me you’re not on the edge of your seat!

  1. The power of questions

A simple question from Sharon Agostino from Say It Forward Now caught me off guard as we were introducing ourselves to one another: “Tell me something about you that has nothing to do with your work or your family?” It made me think, “What pieces of myself do I unintentionally relinquish to juggle the proverbial balls?” When we talk about equal rights, what does that look like both in the global south and also in the global north for women trying to balance work, life, family, cultural assumptions, and everything in between?

  1. The power of sharing power

As the first public-private partnership dedicated to the prevention of preterm birth, Born on Time is rooted in the belief that one of the most useful and productive tools of power is the ability to share it. Relinquishing entrenched power is part of the journey to equality. If we are to see meaningful change, then systems, legislation and socio-cultural narratives will need to be overhauled. But so will individual practices of ongoing oppression and indignity. When daughters are given the chance to go to school, when sisters are invited to eat at the same table as their brothers, when women are able to control assets and command their own agency, then we will have the chance to experience the power of true equality, transforming generations to come. Where am I perhaps shirking my responsibility here in Canada to share power intentionally and meaningfully?

  1. The power of hope

Just a few short steps from our Born on Time booth, a quote caught my eye on a neighbouring booth, “More than my mother, less than my daughter.” I stood there reading it over and over again, mesmerized by the deep truth of such a short statement. Incremental change can be painstaking at times, but it also tends to grow deep roots and builds a sustainable system over time. I was overcome with emotion thinking of so many girls I have had the honour to meet, and of my own intelligent, capable and bold young daughter. Yes, I want more for them. I want my success to be only a fraction of theirs. For them to be able to live into their true selves and chart their own paths confident that their intrinsic worth is enough.

Reflecting on all that I experienced at Women Deliver, I can say with certainty that I feel more grounded, more singular in purpose, and truthfully, a bit more gracious with myself. More than anything, Women Deliver reminded me that a brighter world for women and girls, is a stronger world for all. And that’s a reminder worth carrying for a lifetime.

By Marie Bettings, Program Director, Born on Time

Photo at top: The author, along with Born on Time panel speakers and Johnson & Johnson delegates at Women Deliver

Implemented in Partnership with:

World Vision Plan International Save the Children Government of Canada Johnson & Johnson