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Advocating for Women’s Rights in the Age of #MeToo

News Deeply speaks with Katja Iversen, president and CEO of Women Deliver, about what 2018 looks like for women’s advancement and how to think about gender equity and gender equality going forward.

Written by Lara Setrakian Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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Activists take part in the Women’s March in Athens demonstrating for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, equality in the workplace, refugee rights, climate change, gender equality and religious tolerance.George Panagakis/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

DAVOS, Switzerland – Like many longtime gender advocates, Katja Iversen has spent the past five months having conversations she never expected to have with ordinary people, about topics she’s spent a lifetime working on.

“One of the most powerful things in the #MeToo movement is that everybody realized that everybody has a story, big or small, many or few,” she says.

“I’m sitting on airplanes with people I’ve never spoken to and hearing their stories.”

“It’s destigmatizing: This is something you can work on for centuries or decades, but this is happening monthly now.”

Iversen is president and CEO of Women Deliver, an advocacy organization founded in 2007 to campaign for better maternal health, and which now convenes a global conference every three years on women’s health and rights.

News Deeply spoke to Iversen on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos. Looking ahead to the next Women Deliver conference in 2019, she discusses the arguments that work for investing in women and girls, and the effect that the #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements have had on advocacy.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What has Women Deliver learned from the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements?

Katja Iversen: It’s not one movement, it’s a rallying cry. But it also has to be concrete. Now what? What are we reaching for? Time’s up, yes, but what comes next?

That’s where Women Deliver brings a lot to the table because we always focus on the solution, we don’t focus on the problems. When we do the Women Deliver 2019 conference, it will be in a totally new context. It will be in a new world politically, practically, socially and also technologically. The #MeToo and the #TimesUp movements will play a role in that because there is energy around girls’ and women’s participation in society and girls’ and women’s ability to control their own lives, as well as the push for new data.

Of course, we also see that big movement as women vote, women run for office. So advancement is not just in the workplace, it’s the advancement of ideas and advancement of the values.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: What are the biggest issues related to women’s economic advancement that you’re watching in 2018, what drivers of prosperity for women?

Iversen: Let me just be absolutely clear: We are never going to see women’s economic empowerment and advancement if women can’t control their own bodies. We spend 35 years trying not to become pregnant and an average four years trying to become pregnant and we need the means and information to do that. This is tightly keyed to getting an education, and linked to getting and keeping a job. Women’s economic empowerment is absolutely important and it both has a trickle-up and trickle-down effect, but it can’t be seen alone. None of these issues can.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: Women’s empowerment can have a lot of meanings. The word empowerment is used for everything from selling deodorant to describing material and radical transformation in women’s lives. What does real empowerment look like on the ground?

Iversen: I know it’s development lingo, but I personally don’t like the words “empowerment of women.” It doesn’t work in other languages. People kind of look at me [and say], “Empowerment?”

But if we talk about women’s advancement, it’s a totally different story. Also empowerment implies that one empowers another and that means you’re objectifying a woman. You’re victimizing her by assuming she’s just not strong enough.

We speak about gender equality and gender equity. Equity is the ability to live your full potential and make decisions about your own life and have the economic status, information, education and connections to be able to do that. It means working together. Nobody lives on their own.

Women’s Advancement Deeply: There are two main cases that seem to be cited as reasons to invest in women and girls: the business case and the basic human rights case. Which have you found to be more effective in your daily work or does it depend on the target?

Iversen: As an advocate, I have to say we all have to come into the room with a bouquet of arguments. Some of them are rights-based. Some of them economics-based. Some of them are morally based. Some of them are value-based. Some of them are health-related. Depending on where you are and who you talk to, you serve the arguments in the right way.

I don’t sit with H.P. and start talking about women dying in childbirth because they are not interested in that. I talk about an investment case linked to the sustainable development goals because they’re interested in that, innovation and technology.

If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If we really want to move the agenda, one, we have to have a diversified and evidence-based argument. Two, we have to know who to work with and how to work together.

That’s one of the reasons why we do everything open-source, people can take it and run with it and use it. Rock-solid evidence and solutions: That’s the way we move all this, by collaborating and sharing the resources, not by competing and letting each other down.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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