Navigating the Path to Gender Equality: Insights from Sarah Johnson, Director of Gender and MEAL at CFTC

|  Estimated reading time: 12 minutes
Navigating the Path to Gender Equality: Insights from Sarah Johnson, Director of Gender and MEAL at CFTC

We recently sat down for a rich conversation with Sarah Johnson, Director of Gender and MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning) at Canadian Feed The Children, to explore the intersections between gender, advocacy, and global sustainable development. In this blog, Sarah discusses the complexities of aligning strategic plans with community-led development approaches, reflects on the state and progress of gender equality around the world, and shares insights into her career journey. From attending the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) to shaping gender policies, Sarah provides a comprehensive account of her experiences and the valuable lessons learned along the way. Read more below.

You recently took on a new role at CFTC. Can you tell us more about it?

woman sitting in UN at eventMy new role is the Director of Gender and MEAL (Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability and Learning). This position entails a strategic leadership role within the organization, aligning our actions with CFTC's overarching strategic plan and emphasizing community-led development. My primary focus is on enhancing our monitoring and evaluation practices from a community-driven perspective.

A significant aspect of my role involves integrating gender equality into our programs. While we already have a gender-focused approach, I aim to further develop and strengthen it. In terms of social justice issues, gender inequality is the thing that really keeps me up at night, the issue that I'm most passionate about. So for this role, my favourite thing about it is that I get to contribute in that space.

For MEAL, I particularly enjoy how cross-collaborative it is. I collaborate extensively with various teams, including communications, development, and our global partners. This approach allows me to engage with individuals from across the organization, contributing to a more comprehensive understanding of our programs and their impact.

What inspired you to pursue a career in this field?

I feel like I'm one of those unique people who actually went to school for what I do now. I just always knew that I wanted to do something related to global social justice issues. So I studied international development for my undergraduate degree. When I did Humber College’s International Development program for my postgraduate education, that's when I learned to apply skills that I would need for working in this space like proposal writing, monitoring and evaluation skills.

From there, I started working at an NGO with the gender equality team helping to develop resources around gender analysis that could be used across all of the country offices. As well, I had the opportunity to contribute to an exciting project centered around creating an educational curriculum with a gender-responsive focus, incorporating active learning methods tailored to the needs of both girls and boys.

Four years ago, I transitioned to my role at CFTC, where I've found alignment with the organization's community-led approach. CFTC's emphasis on partner-led initiatives resonated deeply with my values and approach to working in this space, making it a natural fit for me.

What interests you specifically about gender equality?

It really just comes down to the fact that gender equality is the basis for every other area of social justice, in my opinion. If we're improving gender equality, we can also improve education, we can improve food security, and so on. The interconnectedness is so strong between gender equality and all other domains of social justice. Regardless of the field or industry, addressing gender equality is essential for fostering positive change and creating more equitable societies.

What motivated you to attend CSW?

I saw it as an opportunity for personal learning and informing decisions at CFTC. I also viewed it as a great opportunity to engage with diverse multi-sectoral groups, including governments and civil society organizations, all dedicated to advancing gender equality. Learning more about the international policymaking process and the United Nations, and how all of that works, was very appealing too. In addition, I saw it as a platform to establish stronger connections within the gender equality space, aligning with both CFTC's objectives and my own professional goals.

Did you have any expectations heading into the conference?

group of women smiling at UN

OCIC Delegation, from left to right: Pragya Tikku, Kimberly Gibbons, Aysha Dawood, Rachel Morrison, Shehara Athukorala, Sarah Johnson, Rajaa Berry, Laura Lortie-Maurel, Yusra Ahmed, and Keziah Oduro

To be honest, I didn't have specific expectations going into it. While I've attended a lot of conferences before, I haven’t been to one solely dedicated to gender equality. Obviously, there were gender-related discussions in other conferences, but I was eager to see how many sessions there were on different topics related to gender equality. So many, it turns out!

Why do you believe it’s important to participate at CSW?

Participating in CSW is crucial for both individuals and organizations like CFTC for several reasons. Firstly, it provides a platform for collaboration, bringing together diverse groups such as member states, multilateral organizations, and civil society members to foster consensus on addressing gender equality issues. This collaboration can lead to the development of guiding strategies for various stakeholders, including governments and international non-governmental organizations.

Attending on behalf of CFTC was an excellent learning opportunity to listen to what emerging global gender equality areas of focus are being discussed among participants. Learning the best practices and hearing from other advocates of gender equality about what is working, what needs to be worked on and trying to build that alignment on those strategies was very insightful.

Participation in CSW allows organizations like CFTC to amplify their impact and voice on critical issues such as food insecurity, livelihoods, and climate change. Recognizing that women and girls are disproportionately affected in these areas, we must integrate an intersectional and gender equality lens into our programs. By doing so, we can ensure we address the diverse needs of the communities we partner with.

There was a lot of conversation at CSW this year about the backsliding or regression on progress with gender equality as well as the increase in backlash against it. I think more than ever, it's important for us to turn up the dial on these conversations and focus on elevating our work in this area.

Tell us about your experience at CSW.

I had the opportunity to be part of the Ontario Council for International Cooperation’s (OCIC) delegation, which I applied for in October and was thrilled to be accepted. The delegation was made up of representatives from other member organizations committed to international development like CFTC, and delegates from OCIC’s Youth Policy-Maker’s Hub. Before the conference, we had the chance to connect online, discuss logistics, and plan our engagement. As well, we had opportunities to meet with former delegates to learn from their experiences and gain advice on making the most of our time at CSW. There was also a networking session to engage with other delegates attending from Canada to start the collaboration well before the conference.

UN eventOn our first day, we had a series of orientation sessions to attend. This included a side event for Canadian NGO delegates as well as a reception for all of the Canadian delegates that was hosted by WAGE and the Canadian Mission to the UN.

In terms of sessions, I selected a mix of UN Events, Side Events, and Parallel Events.

There are three events that I’d like to highlight.

  1. A town hall meeting with the UN Secretary-General provided a unique opportunity for civil society engagement. The Secretary-General highlighted concerns about artificial intelligence and its potential to perpetuate gender inequities due to inherent biases in its design. For instance, he shared a case where AI unfairly assigned smaller credit limits to wives compared to husbands, reflecting gender bias embedded in the technology. This session shed light on emerging gender gaps in unconventional spaces like AI.
  2. I also attended a session about Global South cooperation, which emphasized the effectiveness of Global South partnership in development efforts rather than relying solely on assistance from the Global North. I found this was an interesting perspective for CFTC because this is something we are striving to do more - to let our partners lead and learn from each other and ensure that we are avoiding perpetuating colonial, paternalistic dynamics in our work.
  3. Lastly, I attended an important session called “Empowering Women through Trade Barriers in Transforming Subsistence into Value Chain Distribution”. The session highlighted that there are a lot of women involved in subsistence businesses, which support women with enough money to buy food for their families but do not take this a step further. It reminded me a lot of our SHINE Project, which aims to empower women not just to create agribusinesses but to add value and scale their enterprises.

A list of some of the other panels I attended are:

  • Gender-Sensitive Parliaments: Advancing Gender Equality to End Poverty
  • Closing the Gender Gap in Education: How to Address Long-Term Barriers and Emerging Challenges in a World of Complex Crises?
  • Addressing Poverty and Access to Education to End Child Marriage
  • Expanding the Discourse on Land and Gender Rights Through an Intersectional Lens
  • Connecting the Dots: Investing in Gender Data for Gender Equality
  • Generation Equality: Driving Feminist Financing and Accountability for Women’s Economic Justice and Eradicating Women’s Poverty
  • Harvesting Empowerment: Women’s Resource Rights to Advance Gender Equality, Poverty Alleviation, and Food Security in Agriculture (Government of Canada and the International Fund For Agricultural Development)
  • Achieving Women’s Economic Empowerment: Innovative Models to Addressing Unpaid Care Work (OCIC partner event with Global Affairs Canada, UN Women, Republic of Senegal, World Renew, and ACT Alliance)

UN Event Types: An Explainer

UN events are official sessions organized by the UN and typically include high-level meetings, panel discussions, and interactive dialogues involving representatives from member states, UN agencies, and accredited non-governmental organizations (NGOs). They often focus on global policies, frameworks, and initiatives.

Side events are organized by member states, UN entities, or accredited NGOs, and run concurrently with the official CSW sessions. These cover a wide range of themes, including advocacy, research findings, and grassroots initiatives, and they often feature panel discussions, presentations, and networking opportunities.

Parallel events are similar to side events but are organized by NGOs that are not officially accredited by the UN and take place outside the official CSW venue. They offer alternative platforms for civil society organizations to engage with delegates, policymakers, and others attending CSW.

What were some key takeaways for you from CSW?

Truthfully, I left with both frustration and motivation regarding how much work there is still to be done when it comes to achieving gender equality. This is the 68th time that this event has been held, and there was a lot more discussion on the backsliding of gender equality gains. While it’s frustrating to see all the work that needs to be done, it’s still so inspiring to be surrounded by so many amazing advocates for gender equality and organizations that are doing important, incredible work. Interestingly as well, there were more women than men who attended the conference, which can reflect who values the importance of gender equality around the world. I think that says a lot especially when you look at who makes up the majority of decision-makers in government versus who attends these learning events.

woman standing in front of UN logo and flagIn one of the sessions, a panelist said that often it is believed that it is a woman's job to support other women when it's actually everyone's job. That really says it all to me - gender equality is not just for women to benefit women. It really is to benefit everyone. That’s why it’s imperative for men to be a part of the gender equality conversation.

Gender equality touches every structure that we have, from legislation and taxes to international trade, to now even AI. So, one of my biggest takeaways from CSW is how many different ways there are to close the gender gap, and how many opportunities there are to achieve gender equality.

What did you find most rewarding about your experience?

One of the most positive things about going was the networking. I got to know my fellow delegation members very well as well as met a lot of other incredible people from all different countries and heard about their work. The importance of those connections and partnerships proves how we can make a bigger impact together.

Do you have any tips for future delegates on how to make the most of their experience at conferences like CSW?

Take advantage of the networking opportunities. You can learn a lot and build many valuable connections that way. Also, do your homework before you go and know who is running certain sessions, the focus, and who else is attending so you can have a networking plan.

Build your schedule ahead of time. OCIC advised us to pick a thematic focus and know which events you’re interested in before you arrive. I was able to plan my sessions around CFTC’s thematic areas of focus like agriculture, livelihoods, Indigenous events, etc.

What advice would you share with women who are interested in pursuing a career like yours?

As I have progressed in my career within the international NGO sector, I've come to recognize the importance of clarity regarding personal mission and values. In this space, there are so many different organizations, and it's easy to lose focus or jump between opportunities. It's crucial to remain steadfast in understanding your own mission and values and to seek alignment with organizations that share those principles. For instance, when I joined CFTC, it was essential for me to work within a framework where community-led initiatives were prioritized. Using this as a guiding principle throughout my career journey has proven immensely beneficial.

sign for UN women CSW conference Another key piece of advice is to always have an attitude of listening and learning. Ensure that you're making space for community voices and community leadership, constantly reflecting on your role, on what the sector is doing, and making sure you're truly prioritizing the communities. This ongoing commitment to listening and learning not only strengthens your effectiveness in this field but also fosters meaningful and impactful contributions to the communities you and your organization partner with.

Looking ahead, what are you most excited about at CFTC?

I'm particularly enthusiastic about the increased focus on gender equality within my role and the opportunities to expand upon the excellent gender work already underway.

One of my key priorities for this year is the implementation of a revised organizational gender policy that was developed last year. This involves engaging in conversations with our partners worldwide to understand their efforts towards gender equality and facilitating knowledge sharing among partners.

In terms of Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning (MEAL), I'm dedicated to fostering a community-led approach. While we already incorporate many of these principles, I'm keen to further develop this approach, ensuring that it integrates a gender lens. It's crucial to empower women to lead the development of their communities, allowing them to identify what needs to be evaluated and measure progress effectively. This aspect of my work is really important to me, and I'm excited to advance these initiatives throughout the year.


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