"It Would Be Impossible For Me To Sit Back And Not Do Something": Duchess Meghan Champions Girls Education During IWD Panel

To mark International Women’s Day, the Duchess of Sussex joined a panel discussion at King’s College London, which brought together a special panel of female thought-leaders and activists to discuss a range of issues affecting women today.

The panel was hosted by the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. The organisation, supports and champions young leaders around the world who are serving their communities, providing solutions to problems, and hope, employment and self-employment opportunities for others. Its ethos is very much focused on working in partnership with a number of organisations to reach and connect with young people worldwide, and support those that are the most vulnerable. The Queen is patron and last year she appointed Harry president.

Very fittingly, it was announced today Meghan has become Vice-President of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust. In her new role, the Duchess will highlight the Trust’s partnerships with young people across the Commonwealth, and in particular its work supporting women and girls.

Chairman Lord Christopher Geidt, the Queen’s former private secretary (2007-2017), said:

“The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust is thrilled to welcome The Duchess of Sussex as its Vice-President. The support and encouragement which Her Royal Highness will bring to the young leaders with whom we work promises to have a profound effect. We are enormously grateful to The Duke and Duchess of Sussex for this signal of commitment they are making to our work, helping The Queen’s Commonwealth Trust to pursue its ambitions right across the Commonwealth and beyond.”

Lord Geidt greeted the Duchess with a kiss.

This year’s International Women’s Day theme is BalanceforBetter. “The campaign theme provides a unified direction to guide and galvanize continuous collective action. Balance is not a women’s issue, it’s a business issue. The race is on for the gender-balanced boardroom, a gender-balanced government, gender-balanced media coverage, a gender-balance of employees, more gender-balance in wealth, gender-balanced sports coverage. Gender balance is essential for economies and communities to thrive.”

More on the campaign which runs not just today, but throughout the year: “Collective action and shared responsibility for driving a gender-balanced world is key. International Women’s Day is a global celebration of the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women – while also marking a call to action for accelerating gender balance. The first International Women’s Day occurred in 1911, supported by over one million people. Today, IWD belongs to all groups collectively everywhere. IWD is not country, group or organization specific. Gloria Steinem, world-renowned feminist, journalist and activist once explained: ‘The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights.'”

More from the IWD website:

‘The world has witnessed a significant change and attitudinal shift in both women’s and society’s thoughts about women’s equality and emancipation. Many from a younger generation may feel that ‘all the battles have been won for women’ while many feminists from the 1970’s know only too well the longevity and ingrained complexity of patriarchy. With more women in the boardroom, greater equality in legislative rights, and an increased critical mass of women’s visibility as impressive role models in every aspect of life, one could think that women have gained true equality.

The unfortunate fact is that women are still not paid equally to that of their male counterparts, women still are not present in equal numbers in business or politics, and globally women’s education, health and the violence against them is worse than that of men. However, great improvements have been made. We do have female astronauts and prime ministers, school girls are welcomed into university, women can work and have a family, women have real choices. And so each year the world inspires women and celebrates their achievements.

IWD is an official holiday in many countries including Afghanistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Burkina Faso, Cambodia, China (for women only), Cuba, Georgia, Guinea-Bissau, Eritrea, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Laos, Madagascar (for women only), Moldova, Mongolia, Montenegro, Nepal (for women only), Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uganda, Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Vietnam and Zambia. The tradition sees men honouring their mothers, wives, girlfriends, colleagues, etc with flowers and small gifts. In some countries IWD has the equivalent status of Mother’s Day where children give small presents to their mothers and grandmothers.’

I enjoyed this video, which poses the question: ”What do you hope gender equality looks like in ten years?”

Meghan joined a host of well-known and accomplished faces including Annie Lennox OBE, who is best known for her illustrious music career, but is also the founder of the Circle, an organisation supporting and empowering women’s lives around the world; Adwoa Aboah, founder of Gurls Talk, an open community where young girls can talk about the issues that matter to them; Julia Gillard, Former Prime Minister of Australia, Patron of CAMFED and Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London; Chrisann Jarrett, Founder of Let us Learn; and Angeline Murimirwa, Executive Director of the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED) in Africa and co-founder of CAMA, a pan-African network of young female leaders. The panel was chaired by Anne McElvoy, Senior Editor of The Economist.

Meghan is already familiar with the organisations involved today, and had several private meetings and briefings with representatives from CAMFED last year, including Angeline Murimirwa who was on the panel today. Ahead of the event, the executive director spoke to Simon Perry:

“Meghan’s a long-standing supporter for women’s rights, for equality and for equal opportunities, and it is really exciting that she is doing this along with other women who are in the space of education on International Women’s Day,” Murimirwa tells PEOPLE. I’m really excited that she’s carrying forward this passion here.

Murimirwa also applauds Meghan’s husband, Prince Harry, 34, who took up the campaign in Africa when he visited with CAMFED in Zambia last November. In Morocco last month, the royal couple visited a boarding house and school – both run by Education For All,this link opens in a new tab which works to get young girls into school.

“It is about dismantling barriers to girls’ education and education for children,” Murimirwa adds. “I respect that they focused on that – looking at what is that is stopping girls going into school in every context and tackling that head on.” CAMFED’s goal is to raise $265,000 to help reach 30,000 “invisible” girls – those who don’t show up on official records of any kind – and start the process of getting them into school. That is “my call to action,” she says.’

In front of an audience of students, opinion formers and young leaders, the group discussed the importance of International Women’s Day, and the spotlight it can bring to obstacles which still affect female empowerment across the world, including access to education and limitations within employment. They also focused on the positive opportunities that come when women are given wider access and equal opportunity.

Anne McElvoy introduced Meghan as “a royal not afraid to embrace full-on feminism”.

When asked how her pregnancy is going, she replied: “Very well. It’s funny, I’d actually been joking these past few weeks I’d seen this documentary on Netflix about feminism and one of the things they said during pregnancy was ‘I feel the embryonic kicking of feminism’. I loved that. So boy or girl, whatever it is, we hope that that’s the case.”

McElvoy asked the participants how they will treat themselves today. Meghan replied: “I think the real treat in and of itself is being able to be here; that is such a gift on this day. And then separate from that there are the women in my life that I want to celebrate with and send some love to today. But also the men who are championing all of us as part of this journey. Then I’ll put my feet up because that’s a deserved treat, especially in this stage of pregnancy.”

The Daily Mail reports it is thought the Duchess was referring to “Johanna Demetrakas’s 2018 film Feminists – What Were They Thinking? in which comedian Lily Tomlin speaks of the day she felt the ’embryonic kicking of feminism’, a term coined by her wife and collaborator Jane Wagner”.

Meghan spoke at length about challenges facing women, the importance of men participating and gender equality.

The Telegraph reports:

“I think when we talk about gender stereotype shifting – what it means to be masculine, what it means to be feminine – you know I’ve said for a long time: you can be feminine and feminist,” she said. You can be masculine. And I think in terms of masculinity, you understand that your strength includes knowing your vulnerabilities and your sense of self and security. Your confidence comes in knowing that a woman by your side, not behind you, is actually something you shouldn’t be threatened about but, opposed to that, you should feel really empowered in having that additional support that this is really about us working together.

That’s what gender equality means for me and having men part of that conversation saying there’s nothing threatening about a women coming up to the same level, it’s our safety in numbers, this is our power and our strength as a team. And that’s gender neutral if you really think about it. So I hope that men are part of the conversation. My husband certainly is.”

Invited not to “hold back” on her opinions about what is still blocking progress for women, the Duchess said: “I think we’ve covered how important education is. That is one huge thing, a lack of access to education in my mind is the single largest hindrance to this equality that we are all seeking out. But to your point of saying things like, which I wouldn’t condone, the idea that there’s a headline saying ‘feminism is a trendy word’, that’s not helpful either, right?

“We have a responsibility as well, that if you’re part of social media and engaging in that way, we’re not just giving people more things to chat about but actually something to do, and what’s the action. Hashtags are not enough. You say great, make a donation, you could sponsor a girl, with the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust there are so many of these organisations – Cama, Camfed – to be able to say ‘this is a tangible thing that I can do that will enable this girl to stay in school for a year’ That’s something you can do and I think often-times when we talk about themes like this that are so large, people don’t know where to begin. So give them something to do, this will cost you so little, but will make the largest impact. But that is how we start to effect that change.”

Asked about the reaction of some to comments about equality, with headlines like “’it’s all gone a bit trendy, it’s gone a bit woke and not in a good way”, the Duchess said she chooses not to read her own press. “Much safer that way,” she said. “But equally that’s my own personal preference because I think, positive or negative it can all sort of feel like noise to a certain extent these days.

“So as opposed to getting muddled with that, to focus on the real cause. So for me I think the idea of making the word feminism trendy, that doesn’t make any sense to me personally, right? This is something that is going to be part of the conversation forever. And I think the more that we normalise it you see that, to the point of how men and boys should be part of the conversation, specifically in developing countries.” 

Speaking about girls education and the global impact of pulling young girls out of education , the Duchess said: “It would be impossible for me to sit back and not do something about it”. Meghan added “Looking at my role, that I’m very, very privileged to have now with the QCT – just expands that platform to be able to go to 53 Commonwealth countries and do this level of work across the globe”. Meghan continued: “So, yes I started at 11, but it still feels like the beginning”.

Meghan also spoke about social media.

People reports:

“My personal decision is to not to feed into negativity and be more cause-driven, action-based,” she said. “For me it’s a tricky one, because I’m not part of any of that. I don’t look at it. Sorry, no. For me that is my personal preference. But I do read The Economist.“ (The panel discussion was moderated by Anne McElvoy, senior editor of The Economist.)

She added that she seeks out “journalism that’s really covering things that are going to make an impact, which we talked about backstage. We were talking about Tanzania and the article The Economist just did. Things like that, that are really talking about how the role of women is really shifting and changing. That’s key. Focus your energy there and not on the stuff that is perhaps muddling you.”

The royal mom-to-be, who was just named vice president of the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust, joined a distinguished group of activists to advocate for women’s empowerment and equality. “If things are wrong and there is a lack of justice and an inequality, someone needs to say something,” she told the audience. “And why can’t it be you?”

The Duchess also spoke about the important of destigmatizing menstruation. More from the Mirror:

‘Meghan spoke about work in India she did a few years ago with a grassroots organisation trying to de-stigmatise menstruation. She said: “Giving them access to be able to get these products, but in the same construct having these women mobilised to set up microfinance to sell these pads and other things that are needed to other women in the community.

“So again it feels like it’s one issue but it ends up solving so many. Because when you see how many girls are hindered and taken out of school simply because they’re ashamed about going through that transition in life, or because no-one wants to talk to them about it because they don’t have what they need and they’re using old rags – literally. Which of course is propelling disease and so many other symptoms that come from this. At the end of the day, we are doing our part just to normalise the conversation. That’s the first step.

“Because again this is 50 per cent of the population that’s affected by something that can also end up creating the most beautiful thing in the world. So it’s a strange one that it’s ended up becoming so stigmatised. Remember it’s also in our own communities that it’s happening, and the only way we shift that is by talking about it which is why the work you do with Gurls Talk is so important.”

More from the QCT: “A key theme of the panel was education and everyone’s right to learn. Angeline Murimirwa stated that “Education is the single most positive force in making change. It’s a fundamental right, and we have to work hard if we’re going to make change globally.” She went on to share how transformational change can be achieved in empowering girls and women specifically, stating that “we have an unprecedented opportunity to accelerate change, but it can’t be fought alone.” The panel went on to discuss what men and boys can do in the fight for gender equality. Adwoa Aboah stated that “we have to bring men and boys into our global community of feminists.” Annie Lennox, OBE, said “I’d like every man to be able to stand up and say ‘I am a global feminist.’

At the end of the video below, Annie Lennox describes Meghan as an “articulate, engaging and committed” young women.

You can watch the panel in its entirety below. It’s about 70 minutes long.

People‘s Simon Perry revealed that after the panel discussion Meghan met a group of students during an impromptu walkabout. History student Aneesha Aslam said: “She asked us what we are doing for International Women’s Day and we said we were celebrating it with the women that we love.”

It’s been terrific to see the cohesive effort to mark the day among the royal households. Yesterday, the Duchess of Cornwall hosted a reception in honour of the Women of the World Festival, of which she is president. Julia Gillard, who joined Meghan on the panel, was in attendance.

The Countess of Wessex hosted a reception for Women Peacebuilders at Buckingham Palace today.

Sophie also penned an excellent piece for the Telegraph revealing why she’s joining the fight to end silence around women in conflict:

‘This International Women’s Day provides us with an opportunity to work towards filling that silence through celebrating the efforts made by many remarkable women, and men, who are working to address sexual violence in conflict and empower women’s voices in the peacebuilding process.

Against a backdrop of ugly headlines for women, revelations of sexual exploitation, and the abuse suffered by those in war zones, it is easy to overlook the pioneering work of change-makers. Brave women who stand for progress, even when their physical security and basic aspirations are under threat.

The UK is playing a pivotal role in putting more women and girls at the centre of conflict resolution, encouraging women’s participation in building peace and supporting survivors of sexual violence in conflict. Research shows that peace agreements are 35 per cent more likely to last at least 15 years if women are involved in negotiations. But UN Women and the Council on Foreign Relations analysis shows that, between 1990 and 2017, women made up only 2 per cent of mediators, 8 per cent of peace negotiators and 5 per cent of witnesses and signatories in all major peace processes. This has to change.

I am now taking an active role in championing the UK’s work on Women, Peace and Security (WPS) and the Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict Initiative, also known as PSVI. The WPS Agenda was born nearly 20 years ago out of a civil society movement to tackle the impact of armed conflict on women and girls, and to promote the positive role women play in building peace and stability. In 2012, PSVI was launched by former foreign secretary, Lord Hague, and UNHCR Special Envoy, Angelina Jolie.’

I expect we’ll continue to see Meghan marking International Women’s Day annually. It’s been a staple on her calendar for several years. I first became interested in blogging about Meghan when I saw the stirring speech she gave on International Women’s Day 2015, in her role as UN women’s advocate for political participation and leadership at the UN International Women’s Conference. During the powerful speech she said: “UN Women, as you guys know, has defined the year 2030 as the expiration date for gender inequality. And here’s what’s staggering, the studies show that at the current rate, the elimination of gender inequality won’t be possible until 2095. That’s another eighty years from now. And when it comes to women’s political participation and leadership the percentage of female parliamentarians globally has only increased by 11% since 1995. 11 percent in 20 years? Come on. This has to change. Women make up more than half of the world’s population and potential, so it is neither just nor practical for their voices, for our voices, to go unheard at the highest levels of decision-making.”

In 2017, Meghan penned an essay for Time in which she discussed the stigma surrounding menstruation in countries like India and Iran. Meghan travelled to Delhi with World Vision to meet girls and women directly impacted by the stigmatization of menstrual health and to learn how it hinders girls’ education. “During my time in the field, many girls shared that they feel embarrassed to go to school during their periods, ill equipped with rags instead of pads, unable to participate in sports, and without bathrooms available to care for themselves, they often opt to drop out of school entirely…this is a shame-filled reality they quietly endure.” Meghan looked to options for the future too, describing a microfinance movement called Myna Mahila Foundation, where women manufacture sanitary pads to sell in communities. The effort not only provides these resources to girls, but also fosters open communication about menstruation.

Last year, Harry and Meghan travelled to Birmingham to learn more about projects supporting young women, an event which aimed to inspire the next generation of young women to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM).

Meghan chose a monochrome look featuring a mix of new and repeated pieces.

The Duchess selected the Reiss Azzura Swirl Printed dress for the event (with thanks to Laura). The $345 piece is described: “The black-and-white Azzura dress channels the mood of the 1960s with its block-colour swirl design and a simple shift silhouette. It’s designed with pleated detailing at the cuff while the high neckline adds to its graphic aesthetic.” I believe this is the first time Meghan has worn Reiss clothing for an official engagement. The British brand specialises in stylish workwear for both women and men. Their designs have been worn by the Duchess of Cambridge, Emma Watson and Robin Wright in House of Cards.
Meghan added her Alexander McQueen black blazer to the look, which she first wore to the Endeavour Fund Awards last year. The grain de poudre wool blazer features padded shoulders and a tailored fit. It retails for £1,245 at Net-A-Porter.
Happy International Women’s Day! If you would like to sponsor a girl via the Queen’s Commonwealth Trust please click here.

In other news, Meghan had a private meeting with Caroline Yates, the Chief Executive Officer of her patronage Mayhew. We’ll see the Duke and Duchess on Monday for the Commonwealth Day service at Westminster Abbey; it will be televised on the BBC at 2.15 pm. The couple will also attend an event at Canada House to mark the day.