International Women's Day 2021: #ChooseToChallenge
‘Build Back Better’ is the powerful global mantra for post-COVID recovery, with the spotlight firmly on addressing health, social, and economic inequalities. However, it’s not the first time I’ve come across the phrase. Some years ago, I spent time in Jamaica, arriving after one of the worst hurricanes in the region’s history which had devastated the island. Debris was everywhere – infrastructure and homes flattened, whole villages unrecognisable.
Where do you start? What do you do? I questioned a local colleague, Elizabeth, who lived nearby. She just shrugged and said “We build back better”.
Elizabeth was 72 when we met. She was, and is, one of the strongest, most intelligent women I have ever met. Mother to six children, grandmother to ten, the only wage earner in her household for most of her life, a leader in her local community, and a powerhouse of energy and experience. Despite Elizabeth being no stranger to crisis, she was strikingly optimistic about the future, putting huge value on community and, crucially, believing and actively ensuring that women should be at the centre of recovery. She told me “It will be the women who will get things back […] They may not work on the bricks of the buildings but they’ll build back bit by bit, together, and focus on what is at the soul of what this place needs to recover from all of this. And it will be better.”
At the heart of Elizabeth’s narrative was gradual recovery and the indirect involvement of woman in decision-making. However, the time for incremental progress has long passed. We know that the pandemic has deepened pre-existing inequalities, and risks reversing decades of advancement on women’s rights and empowerment.
The theme of 2021’s International Women’s Day is #ChooseToChallenge. Our challenge is to urgently deliver a more radical pace of change. Empowering women is not only essential and fundamental to successful inclusive societies, but it’s vital for economic recovery. To do this, women need to be at the centre of every aspect of decision-making, visibly leading, and now.
It’s critical we leverage the immense capabilities and intelligence of women of all ages, whatever their circumstances, harnessing and enabling their ideas, abilities, imagination, strengths and expertise, and give them the opportunities to have the best possible chance to thrive.
At the UK’s National Innovation Centre for Ageing we do this. We are privileged to involve thousands of incredible women as part of our international VOICE® citizen network. 65% of this network are women, and the fastest-growing group is the 40+ age group. They are all committed to sharing their lived and professional experiences and skills to learn together and benefit others. They value and prioritise connecting with each other and supporting one another. An important aspect of our strategy to empower women is facilitating intergenerational connections and conversation as a route to accelerate change for younger women and make a real and lasting difference. We’re so proud to be launching international partnerships in the US soon, working with wonderful colleagues and organisations who, this day and every day, value the wisdom of women and put into place real, practical approaches and support to enable women to realise their potential and achieve their aspirations.
With challenge comes change – we celebrate women’s amazing achievements, individually and collectively, and amplify their #VOICE. Collectively we can all help to create an inclusive world.