Patricia Scotland made history five years ago when she became the first female, and black, secretary-general of the Commonwealth; a grouping of 54 countries, including the UK and Kenya.
But the British lawyer born in Dominica (not to be confused with the Dominican Republic, which is a different country) says she may have broken just a single piece in the glass ceiling.
In an interview with the Nation, she spoke of the need for men and women to work together in removing obstacles to gender parity, encouraging Kenyans in particular to remain focused on achieving the two-thirds gender rule as the minimum target.
How are Commonwealth countries faring in terms of gender equality?
As you may know, the Commonwealth, is made up of more than 2.5 billion people in 54 countries. All of our 54 countries have committed themselves to gender equality, something that has been a central part our heads of government have committed themselves to.
The aspiration is to have all our parliaments having [at least] 30 per cent women and this is a goal that the Commonwealth has incrementally pursued with vigour, and there are extraordinary examples in this region where that has been achieved.
So, for example, Rwanda — more than 60 per cent of parliamentarians are women and just over 50 per cent of the Cabinet are also women. But if you look at some of our countries, they are struggling to get to that 30 per cent and that is not just because we want women to participate. It is because we need women to participate if the legislation, if the rules, that we are going to be bound by are really going to be inclusive and reflect everyone.
So there is a journey and if you look at President Kenyatta here, he has given five key portfolios to women. And if you look at the commitment of our leaders on women’s empowerment and leadership, it has been extraordinary. I would also like to commend the leadership of President Kenyatta on what he is trying to do to address domestic violence and, also, female genital mutilation.
The President here has received backlash, nonetheless, for failing to achieve the two-thirds gender rule, as well as rates of domestic violence going up last year. How are those hindering gender parity?
One of the things we have to say is that violence against women and girls is a pandemic. This is something that is affecting every single country in the world. The World Health Organization says it affects one in three women worldwide. So it is something that is in need of urgent attention and during this period of Covid-19, it has gone up worldwide. The lockdown has meant that many families are locked together in the same household and that has increased tension and increased difficulties.
What Kenya, tragically, is experiencing, is similar to what other countries are facing. And that is why we have come up with the ‘Commonwealth Says No More Campaign’ so that we can share tools and strategies to address this in a way that can make a difference. Is it easy? No it isn’t.
It not only affects our social interaction; it also hurts us economically because the violence also disables our women from taking their proper place in the workplace and adding to the opportunities that are there. That, unfortunately, is a common problem. But I am proud of what the President is doing to address the problem.
Change is never easy and that is why, at the Commonwealth, we have been looking at how to assist our member states to put in place the sort of strategies that will enable us to go faster, easier and better.
This two-thirds rule is something aspirational. You have to understand that at the Commonwealth, we want 50-50 because we think 50-50 is what will make our countries the most productive.
When you are looking at exponential growth and wealth creation, those countries that have enabled more people to be wealth creators and creating more diversity, that diversity has in itself become a wealth creator. We can acknowledge that things aren’t going as fast as they would like.
All of us would like to be in the position that Rwanda is in. That is the aspiration, but what we are looking at together is what we have to do and how do we get there? Every time there are problems, and I know there have been problems in Kenya, we have to face them, we have to look at why that has happened and then we have to go and disaggregate.
If those are impediments, how do we move them out of the way? One thing I do know is you have brilliant women in this country and the Kenyan community will benefit greatly from them. We need women just as much as we need men.
What are the other challenges hindering women from achieving their potential?
The violence we have talked about is really an important impediment. But we need to ensure that our girls receive the education opportunities equal to what our boys receive. It is making sure on the type of subjects we coach girls to take on, we don’t discourage them; we encourage them to take on the Stem (Science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. If you look at Covid-19, many of the scientists working on solutions are female scientists who are committed to curing us from this pandemic.
It is making sure that the opportunities for girls are there. It is making sure that in the workplace, women have an appropriate opportunity for promotion. And I think that one of the challenges is making sure that at every level, women’s voices can be heard. What we are doing in the secretariat is that we are creating tool kits helping to pool the knowledge about how you do it and sharing that knowledge amongst ourselves.
What is the role of the Commonwealth today?
At the Commonwealth, we are bound together by the same value systems, the Commonwealth Charter, which reflects the sustainable development goals. What we at the Commonwealth have done is to pool the knowledge and expertise on all these areas.
At the moment, we are facing the Covid-19 Pandemic — which has brought an economic Tsunami with it — as well as climate change. The intersection of those three things and the interrelationship of these three has been at the front of our minds. We created a Blue Charter to deal with oceans… we are looking at the connectivity agenda.
When I came in as secretary-general, I said we were looking at putting at the wealth in our Commonwealth but we are also looking at putting the common back into wealth. We have a huge opportunity. We have a 19 per cent trading advantage. That was in 2016, now it has gone up to 21 per cent.
The Africa Free Trade Area has been created. How can we get connectivity between our countries to make sure wealth creation actually becomes a reality, rather than just hope and aspiration? All those opportunities are there and we want to have $2-3 trillion of inter-Commonwealth trade by 2030. Right now it is about over $700 billion. We can grow that trade.
We are working together to improve our governance. We have gone beyond just talking about policy to how do we equalise and implement that policy? Things we are doing about equalising the law? Most of our Commonwealth have what we call Common Law, same parliaments and same institutions, so how do we share that knowledge and expertise? This is a real opportunity at a time when the world needs to act as a family and needs to act as a partnership.
How is the Commonwealth in touch with the grassroots?
We believe we are because 60 per cent of the Commonwealth is under the age of 30 and the Commonwealth has been focusing on young people for the past 45 years. We are probably one of the most effective committed organisation for young people. We have 32 of our members as small nations, 25 of them are island nations and most of our countries are developing and least developed, together with some of the most developed.
This constellation is a unique opportunity for us to understand what is happening at the grassroots. So there is a huge opportunity for us to tell the world what we are doing because there is so much that we can do and it is important that we can communicate to the grassroots.
Which other programmes target Kenya and other developing countries?
They all have programmes, which have to deal with climate change; something that poses an existential threat to all of us. We have created the Blue Charter, which looks at how we are going to address the issues in relation to the ocean. Climate change is something Kenya has put at the forefront of its future development and we are working with Kenya on all sustainable development goals.
One of your values is democracy, but recently, we have seen violence in our local by-elections. Are you worried of the possibility of similar incidents next year when Kenya holds elections?
One of the things I can say is that internal issues of every member are those which are governed by the government. But what the Commonwealth does is promote peaceful interaction, good governance and promote the tools that we can use to make sure that fairness and good governance actually prevail. So, certainly, everything that we have created and delivered and everything we are doing is ensuring the peaceful celebration of the people’s rights.
What does Commonwealth do in case of political violence?
We have a plethora of activities for all our countries. And the truth is, if you look at all our nations, there is not one country that does not have challenges in relation to safety and security. That is a feature, regrettably, of our lives today.
So if you look at what we do today, whether it relates to our work on violent extremism, criminal justice, youth inclusion — which we did in Kenya with the faith-based communities, all those initiatives help to create an environment that is safer, more understanding, but also to understand that there are different ways of mitigating and migrating discussion, which is peaceful.
There is no one thing that will solve all problems. There has to be a built of a multiplicity of things that we can do together to make it less likely that people will seek violence as a means of dispute resolution. The Commonwealth view is that violence is never an appropriate way to resolve difficulties between individuals.
What is the future of the Commonwealth?
The future of the Commonwealth is bright. There are 54 of us and we represent one third of the world. And what we have experienced, particularly last year, is that by working together, pooling our expertise, pooling what we know, being able to help each other in a way which makes the difference to our ability to not only combat Covid-19, but also to build back better so that we leave no one behind. We have never needed the Commonwealth more than we need it today and I am very proud that we are here to deliver that.