On Saturday, March 3, the Gender Equality: Planet 50:50 Conference was held at Hart House. The event was hosted by the UN Women of University of Toronto, the Eastern African Students’ Association, Her Campus U of T, and the University of Toronto Students’ Union.

The event on women and gender empowerment was UN Women’s first academic conference — hopefully with many more to come. Proceeds from the event, which had a suggested admission fee of $5, went to the nonprofit organization Girl Up, which funds United Nations programs that promote the health, safety, education, and leadership of girls in developing countries.

The event showcased a wide array of speakers, who all had something different to contribute to the arena. Speakers were categorized into three different themes: “Women and the Media,” “Women in Power and Decision Making,” and “Human Rights and Women.”

The main organizer of the event was Julia Mogus, the president and founder of the UN Women club. Mogus and the other members of the UN Women executive wanted to draw attention to local leaders in the community who were challenging norms, breaking the glass ceiling, and empowering other women.

The first speaker was Zaina Moussa, a fourth-year Communication Technology major. Moussa talked about how she discovered her passion for entrepreneurship after being a vendor when she was 10 years old. She started an event planning business when she was 19, called Zuri Curated Ladies Events.

Moussa’s company creates women-only events to promote women in entrepreneurship and celebrate diversity. The latest event she is promoting is ‘The Second Annual Run The World Ladies’ event on April 28, which will showcase and support local “girl bosses,” as well as feature a diverse fashion show and a female empowerment speaker to inspire attendees.

Another speaker of note was Ani Castillo, a local artist who creates art that emphasizes body empowerment and breaking gender norms. Castillo discussed her childhood in Mexico and how she got her start as a cartoonist for a local newspaper. She then met her husband on MySpace, which is what brought her to Toronto.

Castillo was open about her struggles of transition as an immigrant in a new country, which was one of the motivators behind her now popular cartoons and artwork. With her husband, she has co-founded Miniature Massive, a communications firm, and also currently works at Metro News Canada as an artist and cartoonist.

Other speakers included Shahab Madhi, the founder of BLACKORCHID, a clothing brand that uses pop culture to create positive representation of Muslims; Darine BenAmara, the founder and CEO of EasyPoli Consulting and The Smart Woman, which support the advancement of gender equality in the workplace; and Susan G. Enberg, an independent documentary film director and photographer whose work focuses on social change and human rights.

The final speaker at the conference was Hanen Nanaa. Nanaa discussed how she had to pause her education in 2012 because of the Syrian civil war. She also detailed her experience of moving to Canada in February 2017. Today, Nanaa supports others — especially women and youth — to be active in their community and follow their dreams.

Overall, the Planet 50:50 conference was an eye-opening and liberating experience. Hearing such personal stories of female empowerment was encouraging, and it was a privilege to witness the work the speakers do, not only for their own communities but for the progress of gender equality and women as a whole.