2010 Vancouver Olympic Games: An Opportunity to Change the World

You may not think so at first, but it's true. Canada has been dealt a royal flush in Olympic poker with a chance to host the 2010 Winter Olympic Games. Approximately 6700 officials and athletes will hail to Vancouver from nearly 100 countries, photographed and written about by more than 10,000 media representatives, all in front of 3 billion viewers around the globe. With 4.7 billion people tuning into Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics, one wonders, what was the global legacy left behind? With all of this attention, Canada is in a unique position to engage pressing social challenges on an unprecedented scale, and by doing so, ripple-effect lasting positive change throughout the world. It is time to reignite Canada's commitment to gender equality and the advancement of women's rights internationally.

"In this century, the paramount moral challenge will be the struggle for gender equality in the developing world," Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn of the New York Times write in their new book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide. Indeed, while at the 5th Annual Clinton Global Initiative (CGI) in New York just a few weeks ago, investing in women and girls was central to the week's discussions both on and off the stage. The message was clear: women and girls are not the problem, but the solution, and investing in them is the key to unlocking the seemingly keyless deadbolts placed on the world's toughest challenges from poverty to war to economic growth. The energy and motivation for change was palpable at CGI, and the movement has already begun.

Canada is a model for the world on immigration, diversity and pluralism, and now smart financial policies as we host the G8 Summit next year. We must continue the tradition of being a world leader in human rights, and follow in the example of Canadian John Humphrey, the principal drafter of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hosting the 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver this winter allows Canada to once again serve as a model for the world and lead the fight to equalize access and opportunity for women and girls around the globe.

Stephen Lewis, former Canadian Ambassador to the United Nations and Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa under then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan, recently remarked that "the single most important struggle on the planet is the struggle for gender equality." As International Women's Day takes place on March 8th next year -- firmly in the midst of the Games -- Canada has yet another reason to align celebration with responsibility, awareness with renewed commitment, and the wisdom to lead with the courage to act. We need to learn from 1GOAL, a campaign co-founded and co-chaired by Her Majesty Queen Rania of Jordan, and based around the FIFA 2010 World Cup to be held in South Africa next year. The campaign is aimed at mobilizing public support to hold governments to their promises and enable the remaining 75 million children around the world to enroll in primary education by 2015 -- the second of eight UN Millennium Development Goals adopted at the turn of the century. The third goal is to promote gender equality and empower women. Using the Olympic platform, this is where Canada can make a world of difference.

This is a call to action aimed at the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games and the Canadian Government. With a $1.8B price tag to host the Games, we can afford to buy a 60-second spot of advertising to announce International Women's Day, and encourage fans around the world to make an online contribution to BRAC--the world's largest development organization and one of the leading providers of microfinance services that have already supported nearly 7 million women. Moreover, with 1.8 million tickets available for the momentous event ranging from $25 to $775, we can afford to give a percentage of the sales to the Global Fund for Women, or Women for Women International, or another international organization dedicated to the cause. In fact, let's add a section to the ticket purchasing process online where buyers can donate to women and girls programs around the world--a pot of money that the Canadian Government can commit to doubling or tripling. By the time Canada withdraws from Afghanistan in 2011, the total cost of the war will range from $14B to $18B. As we withdraw, we can surely afford to divert millions of those would-be-war-dollars to reinforcing our gender equality efforts in our partner countries throughout the developing world. At an event that prides itself on universality while celebrating the ultimate potential of the human spirit, Canada must seize the opportunity to emphasize the larger picture of truly unequal playing fields--not only because the billions of women and girls around the world are counting on us, but also because the quest for equality is very much a part of Canada's coming of age.

In framing the session on investing in women and girls at the Clinton Global Initiative, moderator Diane Sawyer aptly labeled it "the river of what is right converging with the river of what is needed." We need to take a stand, harness the momentum, and utilize this unique platform to engage the world in the biggest challenge of the 21st century: gender justice. This Olympic Games, let's leave a lasting legacy of awareness and action by igniting the torch of gender equality to brighten the stars that light up half the sky. The women and girls of the earth have already waited far too long to be recognized as more than half the world's population and they simply cannot wait any longer. Neither can we. The time is now, and Canada has a duty to act.

For more articles by Rahim Kanani, click here.