Leaders of 53 countries in the Commonwealth will benefit from the wisdom of “unheard voices of women”, thanks to the contribution of Anglican Churches. The Commonwealth Secretariat held a media briefing yesterday (Wednesday) ahead of the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM), which will take place in London and in the grounds of Windsor Castle from 16-20 April. The formal CHOGM gathering will take place on Thursday and Friday (19-20 April). The first part of the week (16-18 April) will be taken up by four themed forums.
The first, the Commonwealth People’s Forum, will bring together “the largest and most diverse gathering of civil society people in the Commonwealth calendar,” a secretariat spokesman said. Other forums will focus on business, women’s issues, and youth. During yesterday’s briefing, members of staff working for the Commonwealth secretariat stressed how the different strands were interconnected. The business forum, for example, will be looking at empowering women in the workplace and also helping large established companies and “new and disruptive elements” – innovative ideas from young people – can benefit from each other.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, recently appointed a Special Representative to the Commonwealth, the Revd Flora Winfield, in recognition of the strong Anglican presence in many Commonwealth countries and the “historic links and shared values between the Anglican Communion and the Commonwealth.” She will be present at the women’s forum, as will the Bishop of Swaziland, Ellinah Wamukoya, the Commonwealth’s gender adviser, Kemi Ogunsanya, said.
“They are going to share best practices – ways that they have been able to improve relationships with government,” she said, “and also the impact they have played in changing attitudes around these issues by actions taken by the Anglican churches and other religious bodies. They are providing unheard voices of women from all over the Commonwealth to contribute, to speak on the issues, at the women’s forum.”
The issues that the Forum will address are those being tackled by Anglican provinces around the world in support of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The Secretary General of the Commonwealth, Baroness Scotland, explained that the UN nations adopted the SDGs in 2015, two years after the values were incorporated into the new Commonwealth Charter.
The Commonwealth isn’t a political union or free trade area, but a “voluntary association of 53 independent and equal sovereign states”, most of whom were former members of the British Empire. The 53 nations are home to some 2.4 billion people, in both advanced economies and developing countries – including 30 that are classed as “small states.” Over 60 per cent of the combined population of the Commonwealth is under the age of 30.
Recent activities by the Commonwealth in support of its values and the SDGs include help to establish a public defender service in the Bahamas and an electoral commission in Nauru. It has set up regional anti-corruption networks in Africa and the Caribbean. It is helping to train judges in Nigeria to implement new legislation allowing courts to seize assets of criminals; and is supporting a “National Dialogue” in Zambia.
In its activities, it is keen to work with faith communities, including the churches of the Anglican Communion, and is working on a new initiative, Faith in the Commonwealth. “It doesn’t mean faiths in the Commonwealth, it means that we have faith that the Commonwealth as the broadest family, encompassing those of all religions and those of none,” Baroness Scotland said. “It is an opportunity for us to deliver the SDGs together by working with those communities to build better understanding, to build better appreciation and to build peace.
“Of course the issue of women in these areas is of vital importance. So faith, and faith communities, is something that we are working with closely.”
Rwanda was the last new nation to join the Commonwealth, in 2009. Last month (February), Gambia rejoined the Commonwealth, taking the membership up to 53 nations. Zimbabwe’s membership was suspended in 2002 after an observer mission criticised the country’s presidential election, saying it was neither free nor fair. The then-President, Robert Mugabe, formally took Zimbabwe out of the Commonwealth in December 2003. Current President Emmerson Mnangagwa has signalled his desire for Zimbabwe to re-enter the Commonwealth; but has yet to begin the formal process. Yesterday, Baroness Scotland indicated that the process was unlikely to commence until after new Presidential elections in Zimbabwe later this year.