When researching this post and considering Meghan's work in support of women, her role as UN Women's advocate for political participation and leadership springs to mind instantly, not least thanks to her stirring and memorable speech at the 2015 UN International Women's Conference. Meghan received a standing ovation from the audience, which included Ban Ki-Moon, for her powerful words on gender equality.
This one sticks in my mind in particular for several reasons: when the media broke the news Harry and Meghan were a couple, I wasn't very familiar with the series Suits, and as you'll recall, there was a bombardment of salacious stories and a vulgar use of imagery taken from the series of Meghan in her underwear. I did a little bit of surfing and was blown away by her speech. What made it so special? Firstly, it was abundantly clear how proud she was of the role opening with: "I am proud to be a woman and a feminist." Recalling the story of how her feminism began at eleven, it was amazing how informed, articulate and passionate she was about the subject. "The way we change that, in my opinion, is to mobilise girls and women to see their value as leaders, and to support them in these efforts." Dressed in a simple black dress with her hair pulled back, it was all about what she had to say.
"I am proud to be a woman and a feminist, and this evening I am extremely proud to stand before you on this significant day, which serves as a reminder to all of us of how far we’ve come, but also amid celebration a reminder of the road ahead. I want to tell you a story that’ll sort of give context to my being here and my work with UN Women. When I was just eleven years old, I unknowingly and somehow accidentally became a female advocate.
It was around the same time as the Beijing conference, so a little over twenty years ago, where in my hometown of Los Angeles a pivotal moment reshaped my notion of what is possible. See I had been in school watching a TV show in elementary school and, um, this commercial came on with the tag line for this dish washing liquid and the tag line said, ‘Women all over America are fighting greasy pots and pans’. Two boys from my class said, ‘Yeah, that’s where women belong, in the kitchen’. I remember feeling shocked and angry and also just feeling so hurt; it just wasn’t right, and something needed to be done. So, I went home and told my dad what had happened, and he encouraged me to write letters, so I did, to the most powerful people I could think of. Now my eleven year old self worked out that if I really wanted someone to hear me, well then I should write a letter to the First Lady. So off I went, scribbling away to our First Lady at the time, Hillary Clinton. I also put pen to paper and I wrote a letter to my news source at the time, Linda Ellerbee, who hosted a kids news program, and then to powerhouse attorney Gloria Allred, because even at eleven I wanted to cover all my bases.
Finally I wrote to the soap manufacturer. And a few weeks went by, and to my surprise I received letters of encouragement from Hillary Clinton, from Linda Ellerbee, and from Gloria Allred. It was amazing. The kids news show, they sent a camera crew to my home to cover the story, and it was roughly a month later when the soap manufacturer, Proctor & Gamble, changed the commercial for their ivory clear dish washing liquid. They changed it from ‘Women All Over America are Fghting Greasy Pots and Pans’ to ‘People all over America’. It was at that moment that I realized the magnitude of my actions. At the age of eleven I had created my small level of impact by standing up for equality.
Now, equality means that President Paul Kagame of Rwanda, whose country I recently visited as part of my learning mission with UN Women, it means that he is equal to the little girl in the Gihembe refugee camp who is dreaming about being a president one day. Equality means that UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is equal to the young intern at the UN who is dreaming about shaking his hand. It means that a wife, it means that a wife is equal to her husband; a sister to her brother. Not better, not worse – they are equal.
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.
The way we change that, in my opinion, is to mobilize girls and women to see their value as leaders, and to support them in these efforts. To have leaders such as President Kagame of Rwanda continue to be a role model of a country which has a parliamentary system comprised of 64% female leaders. I mean, it’s the highest of any government in the world and it’s unbelievable. We need more men like that, just as we need more men like my father who championed my eleven year old self to stand up for what is right. In doing this, we remind girls that their small voices are, in fact, not small at all, and that they can effect change. In doing this, we remind women that their involvement matters. That they need to become active in their communities, in their local governments, as well as in the highest parliamentary positions. It is just imperative: Women need a seat at the table, they need an invitation to be seated there, and in some cases, where this is not available, well then you know what, they need to create their own table. We need a global understanding that we cannot implement change effectively without women’s political participation.
It is said that girls with dreams become women with vision. May we empower each other to carry out such vision — because it isn’t enough to simply talk about equality. One must believe it. And it isn’t enough to simply believe in it. One must work at it. Let us work at it. Together. Starting now."
Meghan starred in this PSA in her role for the UN: "Today less than one quarter of the world’s leaders are women. UN Women’s advocate Meghan Markle launches a new PSA on women's political participation and leadership to help change that reality. Because when women lead, the world changes."
How does one combine living a Hollywood lifestyle full of glamour and champagne with making philanthropy a priority? In a 2016 piece for Elle, Meghan shed light on how she does it juxtaposing a trip to Rwanda for the UN with attending the BAFTAs: "My Mom Raised Me To Be A Global Citizen, With Eyes Open To Harsh Realities":
'I'm sitting in my trailer with my mom in Toronto, Canada, where we're shooting the sixth season of US TV drama, Suits. This in itself is a novelty: my mom is sitting in my trailer, on a show in which I am a lead character, and that has a viewership of more than 1.7 million. It's surreal. We never would have dreamed that this would be my reality. Our reality.
Just a year ago, I was in a van heading back from Gihembe refugee camp in Rwanda. I was there as an advocate for UN Women; I had a week of meetings with female parliamentarians in the city's capital, Kigali, celebrating the fact that 64% of the Rwandan government are women – the first in the world where women hold a majority. I was also speaking with grassroots-level female leadership at the refugee camp just outside the area. Driving back on the dusty roads that day, I received an email from my managers asking whether I'd attend the Baftas. I had never been and had always romanticised it. A high-end jewellery company was going to fly me in, dress me in the fanciest of gowns, and I would travel straight from Kigali to Heathrow, London, to the make-up chair and on to the red carpet.
When I gave a speech for International Women's Day, and Ban Ki-moon led the standing ovation, I thought, 'This right here is the point.' To use whatever status I have as an actress to make a tangible impact. I've never wanted to be a lady who lunches; I've always wanted to be a woman who works. And this type of work is what feeds my soul. The degree to which I can do that both on and off camera is a direct perk of my job.
There is a myth that those who do humanitarian work have a saviour mentality, but the relationship is reciprocal. I returned to Rwanda earlier this year as Global Ambassador for World Vision and met a young girl named Claire, who was on the third hour of her walk to bring her father medicine. I was struck by the steadfast nature in which she did it. There was no other option, so she powered on. These simple acts of grace are the most powerful anchor to what's important. And in the entertainment industry, often riddled with superfluous demands, my barometer of what is valuable is validated on these trips. Not to mention, when I share my photos with my friends, they note that I never look happier than I do when I am on field missions. It's a different smile than the one for the paparazzi – it doesn't require any retouching.'
Meghan is also proud to be an ambassador for World Vision Canada. In February 2016, she once again travelled to Rwanda to witness World Vision’s water work. During her one-week visit to the country, she trekked to unclean water sources, visited clean water projects, helped build a well, and met many Rwandans whose hospitality and stories have made a lasting impression on her life.
Speaking about how her work with the organisation and the trip coincides with her work supporting women, Meghan said: "What does water have to do with women's rights and what's the correlation there? I think what's been really interesting is - it's all so interconnected and when you look at something like that you say well building wells sure you have the water, you have the life source, but what it also does is enable young girls to not have to walk miles to get water for their family and instead they're able to stay in school and that education's going to foster them to be able to be very active in their society and empower them."
A video from Meghan's week there. It's amazing to see how a clean water source can transform a community and the ripple effect it has in education and medicine.
Meghan spent time at a school where girls can now attend thanks to recently built latrines. In the year after it was built, 200 more students were enrolled.
While visiting a school in the Gasabo region of the country she taught students to paint with watercolours, using water from a newly installed pipeline in their community.
The students created pictures based on their hopes and futures, which are now brighter because of the recent access to clean water.
Meghan brought the paintings back to Canada to share the student artists’ stories and raise enough money to support additional water projects with World Vision. Meghan hosted the Watercolor Project fundraiser with 60 high-profile guests invited in March 2016.
The event raised $15,000 - enough to help World Vision build a new source of water for an entire community.
A look at one of the beautiful paintings by Chanceine who wants to be a gardener when she grows up. Each painting included the name of the child who created it and their career aspirations.
In January, Meghan travelled to Delhi with World Vision to meet to meet girls and women directly impacted by the stigmatization of menstrual health and to learn how it hinders girls’ education. Meghan penned an essay for Time in which she discussed the stigma surrounding menstruation in countries like India and Iran. "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.
More from Meghan's essay 'How Periods Affect Potential':
'When a girl misses school because of her period, cumulatively that puts her behind her male classmates by 145 days. And that’s the mitigated setback if she opts to stay in school, which most do not. The latter elect to return home, increasing their subjection to dangerous work, susceptibility to being victims of violence, and most commonly, being conditioned for early childhood marriage. As a female in India, the challenge of survival begins at birth, first overcoming female feticide, then being victim to malnourishment, potentially abuse, and lack of access to proper sanitation facilities. Why, if she is able to overcome all of these challenges and finally get to school, should her education and potential to succeed, be sacrificed because of shame surrounding her period?
To remedy this problem, young girls need MHM, access to toilets, and at a most basic level, sanitary pads. Twenty-three percent of girls in India drop out of school because these factors are not at play. During my time in the slum communities outside of Mumbai, I shadowed women who are part of a microfinance system where they manufacture sanitary napkins and sell them within the community. The namesake of the organization, Myna Mahila Foundation, refers to a chatty bird (“myna”) and “mahila” meaning woman. The name echoes the undercurrent of this issue: we need to speak about it, to be “chatty” about it. Ninety-seven percent of the employees of Myna Mahila live and work within the slums, creating a system which as, Nobel Peace prize nominee Dr. Jockin Arputham shared with me, is the key to breaking the cycle of poverty and allowing access to education. In addition, the women’s work opens the dialogue of menstrual hygiene in their homes, liberating them from silent suffering, and equipping their daughters to attend school.
Beyond India, in communities all over the globe, young girls’ potential is being squandered because we are too shy to talk about the most natural thing in the world. To that I say: we need to push the conversation, mobilize policy making surrounding menstrual health initiatives, support organizations who foster girls’ education from the ground up, and within our own homes, we need to rise above our puritanical bashfulness when it comes to talking about menstruation.
Wasted opportunity is unacceptable with stakes this high. To break the cycle of poverty, and to achieve economic growth and sustainability in developing countries, young women need access to education. When we empower girls hungry for education, we cultivate women who are emboldened to effect change within their communities and globally. If that is our dream for them, then the promise of it must begin with us. Period.'
I hope you enjoyed learning about Meghan's work in support of women as much as I did. It's fantastic how she has carved out meaningful roles with global organisations and interesting to note how she's applied what she's learned to expand on ways she can contribute, from her 2015 speech in the UN to travels in Rwanda and her focus on issues such as water and the stigma around menstruation - both major factors in hindering the path for girls to receive a proper education. I also loved how she thought outside the box when doing watercolour paints with children in Gasabo and thought, how could these pictures help? She then created the Watercolor Project, and the fundraiser event raised $15,000. Imagine what she could achieve with a royal platform behind her...
We close with this quote from Meghan.
We close with this quote from Meghan.