Shauna Sylvester: COP26 Day 9—gender moves to the forefront, but how much has really changed?

The executive director of the SFU Morris Wosk Centre for Dialogue shares what it's been like to witness so much misogyny during her years working in international development

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      By Shauna Sylvester

      It’s Tuesday in Glasgow, the 9th day of the global climate negotiations and today’s theme is gender. I expect the same platitudes I’ve heard for years that women are the most vulnerable to rising GHG emissions and they bear the greatest burden in dealing with the impacts of climate change. I also expect to hear that investments in women deliver the greatest impact as women are critical to food security, child development, community economic development, health, and education. 

      There is no doubt that all of this is true.

      It’s just that these words have been said over and over and over again, with little demonstrable improvement in the lives of women and girls globally. 

      When I was 17, my desire to become a nun was not driven so much by a desire to serve the church, but a desire to be a part of a women’s community that was serving the world. I was fascinated by some of the nuns I had met who were smart, funny, and deeply committed to social justice. Not the general impression most of us have of nuns, but I grew up surrounded by nuns and some of them were charismatic leaders, especially some of the nuns working in Latin America. (Unfortunately, many of them were killed at the hand of despots).

      When I came to my own understanding of the depth of the misogyny of the Catholic church, I left it (much to my parent’s chagrin). I went in search of new communities of women who were serving the world and I found them in the peace movement. Women like Petra Kelly, the leader of the German Green Party; Dr. Helen Caldicott, Australian author and founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Canada’s Mary-Wish Ashford, International President for Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War; and Pearl Gervais, a former nun and ecumenical leader who helped me find my voice in the peace movement as a young woman on Vancouver island. 

      These women were incredible leaders—capable of creating and guiding global movements, shifting global politics, and building communities of care that nurtured young women. They helped me understand what it meant to have a gender lens and how to ask questions about what I was seeing in the world. Their training served me well, but it also came at a cost.

      As I began to venture beyond the comfort of my parent’s home and reside in communities in Bolivia, Indonesia, Ecuador or rural Nova Scotia, I couldn’t help questioning the world around me. Why was my host mother having to care for six children by herself when her husband was off working in the mines of Potosi? Why was there so much violence in the home when “the man of the house” returned? Why were all the nearby chicharia’s filled with men? Why was I receiving daily advances from men I didn’t know, nor want to know?

      Why were women the only ones I saw in the fields picking alfalfa, usually with a child bundled on their back and another two in tow? Why did my host father have a woman in town in Yogya and his wife on the farm in the country? Why did the girls at my school have to ensure all the chores were done before they could study but the boys did not?  Why were there so many single mothers in Los Bancos struggling to get by? And why did I need to always have a chaperone to go out of the house?

      Once I started asking the questions I couldn’t stop. I began to see the world in very different terms. I saw “the burden” of women’s work and I saw how women and girls were treated. Wherever I turned, I saw evidence of sexual and domestic violence. I saw young girls being conditioned to believe they were less than their brothers. I saw wives being beaten by their husbands or threatened by their fathers and their brothers, and I saw women who stepped out into the public eye being ridiculed and insulted. It was heartbreaking and infuriating.

      From behind corners, I started to watch how men asserted their power. I started to analyze the systems and cultures that reinforced their positional power and I started to look at ways in which it was being eroded. I also looked for women who were redefining their roles, who were subtly dissenting and recreating new ways of working. When I found them, I studied and learned from them.

      Those years as a young peace and social justice activist have shaped me in ways I never fully considered until today.

      As I reviewed today’s briefing notes about Gender Day at COP26, I flashed back to the PrepCom IV for the Rio Summit when I sat on the official Canadian delegation as part of the forestry negotiating team. I was given the task of reviewing Agenda 21 and the Statement of Principles on the Sustainable Management of Forests. After a quick review I realized that women were virtually absent from the documents. I then stayed up all night crafting a briefing document that went to our Canadian negotiators about how to insert gender into the documents.

      The words I crafted then were not unlike the words I read today in the COP 26 Gender Day documents. Nor are they unlike the words we crafted in preparation for the Beijing women’s conference in 1994, or the Rio + 10 conference in 2002, or the Rio + 20 in 2012 conference or the Women Deliver conference in 2020.

      So what has changed in these 30 years?

      Certainly, my daughter doesn’t face the same obstacles that women of my generation face. Nor do I have to overcome the same obstacles that my mother endured. But globally it feels like the situation of women isn’t improving.

      On my way to Glasgow I received an email from my colleague Rachel Pulfer who leads Journalists for Human Rights. She is heading a heroic effort to evacuate journalists from Afghanistan. Her note was personal and referenced a women journalist who had interned in Kabul with a media organization I led in 2004. When the Taliban took power last month, this amazing educated professional journalist had to go into hiding with her father. Abused by her handlers she was without money, without food, and without safety. Rachel was doing everything in her power to get her support.

      Her email which included photos, was soul-wrenching. My husband and I moved quickly to send support, but her note made me want to scream. What will it take to end this brutal misogyny? 

      Power is wielded in many ways and I can’t wait for the day when the referent, compassionate, strong, and nurturing power of women overtakes the disabling, unsustainable, and oppressive power that dominates our planet. But until that day comes, I guess we continue to host Gender Days.

      Shauna Sylvester is executive director of the SFU Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue and lead convenor of Canadian Cities + COP26. She's writing a regular blog profiling some of the people, initiatives, and ideas that she's seeing in Glasgow from November 1 to 12. With her SFU and other city colleagues she's cohosting a daily briefing at 11:30 a.m. Pacific time (this week) 10:30 a.m. (next week) by Zoom. You can find the link at