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Feminism 2.0: "Lift as You Climb"

Though the movement faces menacing, mutating challenges everywhere, global feminism -- I'm talking about today's 2.0 version -- is a dynamic force driven by passion. This is heavy lifting. It requires focus, strength, resilience, and commitment to a larger, shared goal.

"Lift as you climb."

That's what women leaders have to do as they rise through the ranks of government, business and the community sector: they must bring other women in the organization, especially younger ones, along with them, changing the organization as a whole as they move forward.

Interestingly, this advice came from a business executive -- McDonald's Canada VP Sharon Ramalho --during a dynamic panel on women in leadership roles, which also included former Deputy Prime Minister Sheila Copps, Nunavut Premier Eva Ariak, and Dr. Mamta Gautam, life coach to physicians. The event was chaired by my colleague Clare Beckton, head of Carleton University's new Centre for Women in Politics and Public Leadership.

The panel was one of more than 300 sessions offered this past week by the Women's Worlds 2011 Congress in Ottawa. The conference drew 2,000 delegates from some 90 countries.

(Disclosure: For two years I served a member of the steering committee that planned this excellent event. It was truly an honour.)

Have no doubt; though the movement faces menacing, mutating challenges everywhere, global feminism --I'm talking about today's 2.0 version -- is a dynamic force driven by passion, evidence, discipline, accountability, tolerance, innovation, and, perhaps most important of all, continuous learning and improvement.

Social-justice activists, government policymakers, engaged academics, progressive business leaders and delegates presented their work to each other, listened carefully to each other, challenged each other on both principles and tactics, and encouraged each other to do more, and to do it better. At the core of this mutual learning process was a work ethic so deep you couldn't see the bottom of it.

The conference participants didn't always agree, though, and were never shy about saying so. At the opening ceremony, when federal Status of Women minister Rona Ambrose went on way too long boasting about her government's work on women's issues (never, of course, referring to its ideology-driven funding cuts to feminist groups), she was booed forcefully by some in the audience.

But delegates also worked hard to build new history together. During one lunch break, nearly 1,000 conference participants marched on Parliament Hill to show their solidarity with those fighting for justice for 582 missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls across Canada.

In its report, "What Their Stories Tell Us," the Native Women's Association of Canada, one of the most active groups at Women's Worlds, summarizes research on these women and girls conducted by its Sisters in Spirit initiative. Aboriginal women represent 10 per cent of female homicides in Canada, but only three percent of Canada's total female population. Police too often have been slow to investigate and solve these cases. And there are insufficient resources to meet the needs of the families of murdered and missing Aboriginal women and girls.

While the Ottawa conference was underway, a new international report, "Progress of the World's Women: 2011-2012", was released by UN Women, the super-agency for women's rights and empowerment. While affirming the importance of well-functioning justice systems as "a vital mechanism for women to achieve their rights," the report emphasizes that "for most of the world's women, the laws that exist on paper do not translate into equality and justice."

Ten recommendations are advanced to make justice systems work better for women, including supporting women's legal organizations and one-stop shops providing forensic, legal, and health services for women, as well as putting more women on the frontlines of law enforcement.

Lift as you climb. This is heavy lifting. It requires focus, strength, resilience, and commitment to a larger, shared goal. It also requires money.

One of the impressive features of Women's Worlds 2011 Congress was its broad funding base: the governments of Canada, Quebec and Ontario all contributed, as did a long list of universities, public-sector and private-sector unions, and some companies (particularly law firms and credit unions). So did the Canadian Women's Foundation and the Belinda Stronach Foundation, as well as a group of Nordic embassies.

Conference organizers were especially appreciative of funding from the unions -- which stepped up when other government funding did not materialize--and were not unaware of the irony of this situation in the current context of repeated federal-government attacks on organized labour.

On the final day of the conference, a high-profile panel explored the theme of women and the power of philanthropy. Abigail Disney (yes, of that Disney family) urged more women to learn about giving and to start doing it. "Women with assets should be stepping up because it's the right thing to do," she said. The panel highlighted the Women Moving Millions campaign in the United States, Canada, Australia and elsewhere, which seeks to increase the number of high net-worth women who make substantial donations to women's organizations and projects. Animated in Canada by the Canadian Women's Foundation, the campaign is steadily gaining momentum.

So, what's next for feminism 2.0?

One upcoming event has a strong Canadian dimension: With the support of the Stronach, Clinton, and Mastercard foundations, among other funders, the G(irls) 20 Summit will be held in France in fall 2011. Organized as a counterpoint to the main G-20 leaders' summit, this event aims to generate "tangible, effective and scalable solutions" for the empowerment of the world's 3.3 billion women and girls.

Climbing and lifting. Learning and doing.

Permanent struggle. Permanent renewal.

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