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Hazel Reeves from BRIDGE and Rosalind Eyben from Pathways reflect on the 8th triennial Commonwealth Women’s Affairs Ministers Meeting (WAMM) held in Kampala from 12-14 June 2007.

The meeting’s main focus was on financing gender equality. What do the new aid modalities mean for our ability to track the flow of funds and their gendered impact, and the financing of gender equality work? Are these leading to reduced funding for women’s national machineries and NGOs concerned with securing women’s rights?

Neither of us had been to one of these meetings before – and because they are only held every three years, the format and arrangements are equally unfamiliar to many of the 51 Commonwealth Ministers. Thus it places a considerable responsibility on senior officials from the countries concerned and the Commonwealth Secretariat - who meet each other every year at the CSW to create a space for the triennial meeting to play a global leadership role in shaping effective policies for women’s rights. The cutting edge nature of the papers and presentations from international experts made a significant contribution to the proceedings – in particular, relating issues of financing gender equality to trade, budgets and HIV/AIDS.

WAMM has had some past successes. Most noteworthy was the 1996 meeting which put on the global agenda the concept of gender-responsive budgeting. The impetus here may well have come on the wave of energy created the previous year at the Beijing Women’s Conference. Some thought that gender budget initiatives (GBIs) were just a fad. Ten years later, 30 Commonwealth countries are formally committed to the policy and report on their progress in implementation at the annual meeting of Commonwealth finance ministers. Still, that struggle is far from over - the Meeting Communiqué referred to the need ‘to develop and enhance capacity for the implementation of gender-responsive budgeting’. In truth, GBIs are particularly pertinent with the move to direct budget support.

Many old hands at these events comment that Commonwealth meetings are much friendlier and more relaxed affairs than their UN equivalents. One reason is because English is the single official language and there is no need for simultaneous translation. Another is that many of those participating have studied at some time in the UK – including here at IDS – and can share common experiences. What these old hands refer to as the ‘family’ atmosphere of Commonwealth meetings does seem to provide a greater opportunity than other international events for making policy breakthroughs.

In principle the meetings for Women’s Affairs should be particularly susceptible to such opportunities. Back home most Women’s Ministers have junior status, controlling limited resources and with little access to those who make the key decisions. Marginalisation can nurture solidarity – particularly among those Ministers who are genuinely seeking to represent in government the demands of the women’s movement in their country.

We were both struck by the energy and commitment of many of the Ministers. The Prime Minister of Mozambique, Ms Luísa Dias Diogo made an excellent opening address that provided a platform for the meeting to discuss the structural barriers to achieving the realisation of women’s rights. WAMM offered the promise of a forum where the aspiration for gender equality was not just a matter of ‘smart economics’ but a political challenge to injustice. The Meeting and the final Communiqué delivered just that.

Yet, despite the evident energy, great experience and commitment of many of the Ministers, particularly those from Africa, somehow an opportunity was missed. The agenda had been fixed in advance. Procedure and protocol, necessary for business to be done, in this instance appeared to work against the interests of those at the Meeting who were looking for collective action that could effectively challenge the marginalisation of women’s voice and interests by their own governments. Now, will they have to wait a further three years?

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