Despite some progress, patriarchal cultures, laws, and values continue to marginalise women, girls and LGBT people across the Commonwealth. Diverse and deep-seated issues from discrimination in employment, to sexual violence, to child marriage are all products of deep-rooted gender inequality and are central to ongoing dialogues around the status of women in Commonwealth societies. Meanwhile, LGBT people across the Commonwealth continue to be marginalised and oppressed, including through criminalisation, violence and social stigma. In fact, 37 of the 53 Commonwealth countries criminalise same sex conduct, mostly via archaic colonial laws introduced by the British Empire, making LGBT equality a uniquely Commonwealth problem.
Yet the Commonwealth is also home to an array of organisations challenging this discrimination, to ensure future prosperity for everyone regardless of their gender or sexual orientation. The Commonwealth Secretariat has been a global leader on addressing the challenges of gender equality and women’s empowerment, adopting the Commonwealth Plan of Action for Gender Equality (2005-15). It promotes gender equality as a core value enshrined in the Commonwealth Charter and the Gender Equality Policy. The GEP provides institutional, operational and reporting guidelines for gender mainstreaming that supports the advance of gender equality through all the Secretariat’s programme delivery, policy processes and systems, in line with the Sustainable Development Goals. The Secretariat’s Gender section also convenes the Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meeting (WAMM) every three years, the last meeting having taken place in Samoa in 2016, and organises the Commonwealth Women’s Forum at CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting). A key policy priority of the Secretary-General, Patricia Scotland, is to decrease violence against women and girls in the Commonwealth, by advocating a multi-sector approach, through legal, educational and health policies.
Beyond the Secretariat, the Commonwealth Foundation is the Commonwealth inter-governmental agency for civil society, established by and reporting to Commonwealth governments on the principle that the Commonwealth is as much an association of peoples as it is of governments. It seeks to mainstream gender intersectionality in all its programmes, with Participatory Governance and Gender (PGG) at the heart of its focus on enhancing the capacity of civil society to contribute to advancing gender narratives and improving governance and gender equity outcomes in the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Women’s Network (CWN) brings together women and gender focused civil society organisations from across the 53 countries of the Commonwealth, particularly at the time of Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministerial Meetings and stakeholder forums. Furthermore, focusing on gender equality as a human right, the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative (CHRI) has a strong commitment to the practical realisation of human rights across the Commonwealth, and a key focus has been on issues of diversity and equality, including areas of police reform, LGBT and modern day slavery.
The Royal Commonwealth Society promotes an intersectional approach to gender equality, effectively using its convening role to start Commonwealth conversations on issues that inter-governmental organisations find difficult to address. It brings together key decision-makers and Commonwealth activists to build consensus around the need for change on differing issues that affect women, girls and LGBT people. A key success has been the RCS’ campaign, in partnership with Plan International UK, to raise the issue of child marriage in the Commonwealth, which has been taken up by the Commonwealth Secretariat and governments themselves.
Latterly the RCS has been working to develop a Commonwealth approach to LGBT rights. As a member of The Commonwealth Equality Network (TCEN), the RCS has been instrumental in connecting LGBT organisations and individuals with high-level diplomats, governments, and Commonwealth institutions to ensure their voices are heard. With TCEN’s secretariat based with the Kaleidoscope Trust, the network comprises more than forty grassroots LGBT equality organisations in over forty Commonwealth countries, mostly in the global south. Beyond the recent decriminalisation of homosexuality in the Seychelles, Belize and Mozambique, a major milestone for TCEN was accreditation to the Commonwealth, a process that involves approval by a panel of member state representatives.
Likewise, the Commonwealth Youth Gender and Equality Network (CYGEN) is a youth-led network of young gender activists and policy experts who seek to support the meaningful inclusion of youth voices on gender issues in local, national, regional, Commonwealth and international agendas. The network, which is linked to the Commonwealth Youth Council, was founded by the RCS in 2015 in recognition of the fact that youth voices on gender issues were not well represented in formal Commonwealth structures. CYGEN has advocated on key platforms, including the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) at the UN in New York, the Commonwealth WAMM and meetings of National Machineries for Women, and the Commonwealth Women’s and Youth Forums.
Increasing the representation of women in politics is a key challenge for all Commonwealth countries. Two Commonwealth organisations focus on this important goal at different levels of government. The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians network provides a platform for female MPs, amplifying the importance and status of female representation in governance across the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Local Government Forum’s Women in Local Government network provides the same platform at the local government level. The network has four focus areas: working with existing elected women; working with prospective elected women; working with political parties and local government associations to remove barriers to women in local politics; and promoting the role of women in local government at an international level.
Many Commonwealth organisations focus more specifically on the challenges facing women in certain fields. The Commonwealth Business Women’s Network, for example, operates as a membership organisation working to encourage, enable and embed women in leadership and women’s economic empowerment. Meanwhile, the Commonwealth Nurses and Midwives Federation is a professional association with many female members which seeks to influence health policy throughout the Commonwealth and develop nursing networks. In sport, the Commonwealth Games Federation made the recent announcement that the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games will be the first to have gender parity in the number of medal events, while three sports – Basketball, Hockey and Swimming – will have more than 50% female officials for the first time. The games will also launch the first Women’s Coaching Internship Programme in the Commonwealth.
Accessing education is a major barrier to the empowerment of women across the Commonwealth. In higher education, the Association of Commonwealth Universities works with universities to promote gender equity as an integral institutional goal, including playing an active role in supporting the recruitment and retention of women in higher education leadership and management. Meanwhile, the Vancouver-based Commonwealth of Learning (COL), hosted by the government of Canada, is the world’s only intergovernmental organisation solely dedicated to promoting and developing distance education and open learning as a contribution to meeting the sustainable development goals, with a key focus on Goal 5 on gender equality. Open and distance learning can be especially helpful in enabling women and girls to access educational opportunities while also fulfilling other responsibilities. COL advocates for gender equality at all levels—starting from early schooling through to tertiary education.