Minister Bibeau’s speech to McGill University’s 2018 Annual Conference of the Institute for the Study of International Development—Unpacking Women’s Empowerment: Implications for Research, Policy and Practice in International Development


March 15, 2018 - Montréal, Quebec

Check against delivery. This speech has been translated in accordance with the Government of Canada’s official languages policy and edited for posting and distribution in accordance with its communications policy.

It’s an honour to be here among so many accomplished women policy-makers, researchers and academics. Given the conference’s theme, it’s important for the students here to see women in leadership positions in a variety of fields and sectors.

I came back from New York three days ago, where I took part in the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women. I met so many committed and passionate gender-equality advocates there, from literally every continent.

It was incredible to see how far women have come to claim their rights at home, at work and in public spaces. It was also a sobering reminder of how much further we still have to go.


For as long as I can remember, gender equality was always something that was coming.

It was coming in the ’60s during the second wave of the feminist movement. It was coming in the ’70s, and again in the ’80s…the ’90s…the 2000s.

Fast-forward to 2018, and gender equality still eludes many women in the West, let alone those in less developed countries and fragile states.

What I find most troubling is that we have started going backward for the first time in decades. The World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Report, which covers 144 countries, shows that things actually got worse for gender equality in 2017.

One statistic, in particular, left me shocked.

The report estimates that, under current global trends, women will not have equal pay and equal employment opportunities until 2234—another 216 years!

We all know that systemic change can be slow, but it seems to me that women have fought and waited long enough.

So, why are gender inequalities so persistent? And why is it so difficult to move the needle on women’s empowerment?

Let me provide some context.

In the last 30 years, the world experienced a phenomenal drop in the percentage of people living in extreme poverty—from 35% to 11%. Despite this progress, approximately 700 million people still live on $1.90 per day, one third of them in sub-Saharan Africa.

At the same time, we’ve seen a dramatic spike in conflicts and climate-related disasters. In 2016, there were 65 million displaced persons in the world. That is the worst record in history.

This confluence of events has made people living below the poverty line increasingly difficult to reach. Women and girls, who are the most economically and socially marginalized, continue to be left the furthest behind.

There are a couple of reasons for this.

More than 150 countries still have laws that discriminate against women.

Every year, 12 million girls are married before the age of 18.

More than 200 million girls and women alive today have been subjected to female genital mutilation.

In total, 214 million women don’t have access to contraception of their choice. And every year, more than 25 million women and adolescent girls undergo a dangerous abortion.

And all around the world, including in Canada, one in three women will suffer from some form of physical, sexual or gender-based violence in her lifetime.

The Me Too and Time’s Up movements have been very effective in bringing these issues to light, but we are still missing the voices of the poorest and most marginalized women.

And yet, data suggests that women are far from being victims. They are, first and foremost, powerful agents of change, development and peace.

According to the McKinsey Global Institute, with positive intervention and sound public policy, women could add $12 trillion to the global economy by 2025.

Women could also reduce chronic global hunger if they had the same access as men to education, property and financial resources.

Between the 1970s and mid-1990s, over half of the progress in alleviating chronic hunger in developing countries was attributed to improving women’s living conditions.

Women are also effective peace brokers. When they are involved in negotiating and implementing peace accords, the chance of peace lasting at least 15 years goes up by 35%.

Finally, if every society increased the number of educated women and girls, they could greatly reduce poverty. Every additional year of high school education increases a girl’s future income by 10% to 20%.


Ladies and gentlemen, I give you this context to highlight the fact that Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy was not created in a vacuum.

It is grounded in evidence that empowering women and girls is the most effective way to address the root causes of poverty and inequality.

It is based on a year of consultations, involving more than 15,000 people in over 65 countries, including many youth and partners in this room. 

It is informed by your feedback that human dignity, gender equality and building local capacity must be at the forefront of Canada’s development and humanitarian actions. 

It is also centred around Canada’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals [SDG] and the understanding that SDG 5 is key to achieving the SDGs as a whole. 

Empowerment, you told us, is multidimensional and so must be our approach.

We listened.

That is why our policy has six action areas. One targets gender equality specifically, while the other five mainstream gender.

Our goal is to ensure that by 2021 to 2022, 15% of our funding supports gender-transformative projects that directly target women’s empowerment and gender equality.

This is a big change from before when only 3% of our funding supported projects that directly targeted gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls, and when roughly 30% of our projects gave no consideration to gender equality at all.


Our job now as the Government of Canada is to provide the means and tools to deliver on this policy. 

In the latest federal budget, the Government of Canada announced a $2 billion increase to the international assistance envelope over the next five years.

In addition to this amount, we will also allocate $1.5 billion over five years to support innovative approaches to international development.

With these new investments, our policy has the political and financial backing to make a real impact.

Let me give you some examples of changes that are already underway, starting with our increased support for sexual and reproductive health.

The Government of Canada has committed to a three-year investment to help improve women’s access to comprehensive sexuality education, contraception, family planning, safe and legal abortions, and post-abortion care.

This funding will also support organizations that are helping to prevent gender-based violence and harmful practices, such as child, early and forced marriage, and female genital mutilation.

For example, in Mozambique, where nearly half of all girls are married and mothers by the age of 19, Canada is supporting efforts to promote and protect a girl’s right to choose if, when and whom she wants to marry, and if and when to have children.

Our projects focus on high-need regions and include everything from improving access to the full range of family planning services, including abortion, to reintegrating adolescent mothers into schools.

We are doing this because we firmly believe in upholding the right of women and girls to control their bodies and make their own decisions.

The second change underway is to work more closely with women’s organizations.

Women have been fighting for their rights for decades. They have built organizations and networks while creating change.

Local women’s organizations know their realities and are well positioned to challenge the issues their communities face. 

So, we are going to the grassroots level; directly to the women themselves.

Through Canada’s new Women’s Voice and Leadership Program, we are investing in women’s civil society organizations and movements that promote gender equality and advance the rights of women and girls.

When I was in Haiti last month, I was pleased to announce funding for up to 30 local women’s groups there.

The women leading these organizations—not just in Haiti, but all over the world—are challenging the status quo, holding their governments accountable and propelling systemic change.

In some cases, these women are putting themselves in danger by speaking out.

What we can do as donors is support these endeavours and ensure women have the platforms, tools and protection they need to make their voices heard.

Listening, amplifying and facilitating—that is our job.

Of course, gender equality cannot be achieved by women and girls working in isolation. Men and boys, and entire families and communities, must be engaged too, or the rigid roles and norms that lead to inequality will not change.

Engaging youth is just as important.

Young people represent an incredible potential for leadership, innovation and social and economic progress. We must work alongside them to overcome the obstacles to their future.

That is why Prime Minister Justin Trudeau appointed himself minister of youth. He wants to ensure that young Canadians, particularly Indigenous youth, have a voice on all issues of national and global importance.

The third change underway is to make Canada’s humanitarian assistance more gender-responsive.

When I went to Bangladesh last November, I met with Rohingya refugees living in camps on the Myanmar border.

The women I spoke to told me about the horrors they had experienced: the violence, the houses on fire, the long and dangerous trek to the border. They were exhausted and traumatized, and many had been sexually assaulted.

It was painfully clear that these women and girls needed sexual and reproductive health services, and psychosocial support, in addition to water, food and shelter.

And yet, the specific needs of women and girls are often overlooked and underfunded in humanitarian crises.

That is why I ensured that Canada’s response to those affected by this crisis includes support for sexual and reproductive health and rights, and psychosocial counselling.

Our funding has helped more than 56,000 women receive antenatal care. And more than 188,000 women and girls have received information and services on gender-based violence.

The fourth change we are making is in the area of innovative financing.

You’ve all heard the estimates. In developing countries, the annual finance gap to achieve the SDGs by 2030 is US$2.5 trillion.

Government contributions won’t be enough. We must step up efforts to encourage private capital investments, including from businesses, pension funds and private philanthropists.

With the $1.5 billion announced in the latest federal budget, our government will continue exploring new partnerships and sources of development financing for the SDGs. 

We are already helping to finance women’s entrepreneurship in developing countries through our founding support for We-Fi [Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative], a blended finance institution that uses government funding to attract investments from other sectors.

Canada’s Development Finance Institute, known as FinDev Canada, will operate on the same principle.

Through a blend of public and private capital, FinDev will help to establish and grow businesses that will have the greatest impact on sustainable development, including women’s empowerment.


So, those are some of the means and tools the Government of Canada is using to deliver on its Feminist International Assistance Policy.

But we can all do more to achieve gender equality and to ensure that our national and international institutions can deliver on the SDGs, specifically SDG 5.

This is where you—the policy-makers, researchers and students—can play a pivotal role.

Data is essential. Yet too many studies on reducing poverty remain gender blind.

Poverty isn’t simply about living on less than $1.90 per day. For far too many women and girls, poverty is also a lack of choice and opportunity.

It is the denial of their agency and autonomy. It is unequal access to everything from credit and contraception, to nutrition and skills development.

It is a lack of capacity to overcome and adapt to climate change. It is inadequate responses to the specific needs of women and girls in humanitarian crises.

Our government is committed to bridging these gaps by supporting new research and collaborating more closely with the International Development Research Centre [IDRC], Canadian universities and other research institutions.

We are doing this because your input will help to inform the design and delivery of Canada’s international assistance.

McGill’s GrOW Research Series, which is funded by IDRC, is a great example of some of the practical policy and programming insights we are looking for.

Another area we want to improve is results tracking.

Our government is currently defining results and specific indicators for our international assistance that will allow us to measure progress. This new results framework will ensure that Canada’s investments in development and humanitarian assistance meet the objectives of our six action areas.

Stay tuned for details because we are asking our partners to apply and adopt a similar approach.


History has taught us that the path to gender equality and women’s empowerment is not a straight line. It zigs and zags and hits a lot of obstacles along the way.

Canada is but one of many donors, but thanks to the help of our partners, we have a comprehensive vision to help eradicate global poverty through a feminist lens. 

In the coming months, our government will use every opportunity to advocate for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.

We will capitalize on Canada’s G7 leadership this year, and as host of the Women Deliver Conference next year, to convene and mobilize new partners.

We will continue to raise critical women’s issues, like sexual and reproductive health and rights, with our counterparts. I invite you to keep up the advocacy too, as challenging as it can be sometimes.

We will do these things because women shouldn’t have to fight and wait another 216 years to get equal pay and employment opportunities. 

Because the time for women and girls is now; no more delay.

And because we cannot achieve the SDGs if we leave half of humanity behind.

Thank you.


Justine Lesage
Press Secretary
Office of the Minister of International Development and La Francophonie

Media Relations Office
Global Affairs Canada
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