Women Leaders in Global Health Conference 2018

The Women Leaders in Global Health Conference was born from frustration many women working in global health felt when seeing the lack of women and diverse leadership in their field.

Women make up 70% of global health force but hold just 30% of leadership positions, and many felt the urge to direct an international spotlight on the matter.

This urge became a reality in October 2017 with the 1st WLGH Conference, hosted at Stanford University.

This year, the 2nd Conference was hosted in the UK by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Longer and richer in content, there were 2 days of panel discussions and vibrant exchange among women – and men – who work in different areas of global health.

Credit: @drawingchange

One of the main figures of this year’s conference was the former Minister of Health of Peru, Dr Patty J. Garcia. Patty is a scientist and an expert in Public Health who decided to take a new leadership position when the Prime Minister of Peru, Pedro P. Kuczynski, called her to offer her one of the most important roles in the country.

She worked within the government of Peru from July 2016 to September 2017, achieving important public health goals such as access to contraceptives for adolescent girls, availability of emergency contraception and rise in vaccination coverage.

Credit: Giorgia Dalla Libera Marchiori

She said that she would have never imagined she would be involved in politics, and even less to become a minister, but that “we need to take opportunities as women”. She took the lead and decided she would use her position to make the changes Peru needed.

Sometimes you are invited to the table and you just have to sit down and get to work. Most of the time, however, you need to open your folding chair and make space for yourself at the table. If no one makes space for your folding chair – “you sit on the table”, suggests Dr Ayoade Olatunbosun-Alakija, Chief Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria.

Women have great expertise, but too often don’t believe in themselves, because the patriarchal society we live in has taught us to look down, apologize and not be a ‘bi**ch’. Women and men need to rethink gender roles and move towards an equal society, where gender, place of birth, sexual orientation or disability will not count anymore, only competence will. 

Around 100 speakers participated in this year’s conference, bringing different perspectives which animated the discussion in so many ways. Dr Ola Abu Alghaib, Director of Global Influencing and Research at Leonard Cheshire Disability, told the audience of her personal experience with disability and finding her leadership role as a person with disability.

Her life is a proof of resilience. She has achieved what she wanted, including doing a job she is passionate about and having her own family. Many told her that as a disabled woman she would not be able to reach those goals, but she decided early on to lead her life in the direction she wanted. Women with disabilities need to be part of the conversation, Ola says, because there is no equity if we, as women, are the first to exclude some of us from the running.

Every woman can be a leader.

This is the philosophy behind one of the best universities in the African continent, the Ahfad University in Sudan. Professor Nafisa M. Bedri explained how their university, founded originally as a girls school by her grandfather, Babiker Bedri, aims to form future women leaders in Sudan.

Investing in women’s education and shaping women’s roles in society is challenging, because of cultural and religious beliefs, but the benefits are tangible and impact our entire society. 

One concept shared loudly and proudly at the end of this gathering was well summarized by Ayoade: “my ceiling has to be your floor”. This means that whatever we do, it has to create better opportunities and a world free from inequities for the generations to come, for all the girls who are dreaming big and should never have their wings cut off.

See you all next year in Rwanda for WLGH 3.0!

In the meantime, find your opportunity to become a leader in your group, community, work place, country. Don’t wait, act. And while doing it, “ensure that your significant other (whether a woman or a man) is a feminist” – Professor Sarah Hawkes, Co-Director of Global Health 50/50.

International Day of the Girl 2018

I’m very excited about International Day of the Girl because this year, I am spending the day working at an organization fighting to ensure that all girls have access to free, safe and quality education. The more time I spend working in this environment, the more inspirational girls’ stories I have the chance to hear.

Girls all over the world are dedicating their lives to stopping climate change, fighting for gender equality and human rights, reducing poverty and increasing access to education and healthcare.

In the United States, Mari Copeni – also known as Little Miss Flint  is fighting for her community’s right to clean water by putting an end to the Flint Water Crisis. Zuriel Oduwole, a girls’ education advocate, is using documentary film and public speaking to highlight the importance of access to technology for gender equality in education.

In Afghanistan, Fatemah Qaderyan and her all-girls robotics team are fighting for girls’ right to education and encouraging them to get involved in STEM. In South Africa, Kiara Nirghin is saving her country’s drought-plagued crops and inspiring girls to get involved in STEM and to find ways to use their skills to solve problems in their communities.

In Nicaragua, Edelsin Linette Mendez is raising awareness about the crippling effects of climate change, especially when it comes to coffee crops in her home. In Indonesia, Melati and Isabel Wijsen launched Bye Bye Plastic Bags in October 2013 to stop the use, sale and production of single-use plastic bags.

In Ecuador, Nina Gualinga is fighting for indigenous peoples’ rights. In Argentina, teenage girls are fighting for their sexual and reproductive rights like access to birth control, quality sexual education and free, legal and safe abortions. In Mexico, young women are taking action against street harassment.  

The fact that these girls are making such a huge impact in their communities proves that when girls are educated and empowered they can change the world.

In my case, I’m lucky to have a younger sister who brightens my life every day. She is always there to lift me up when I’m bringing myself down. She is always protecting and defending her loved ones, especially those who can’t defend themselves. I will always admire her unique artistic talent (she created the illustration for this blog post!), her selflessness and her bravery. I love how comfortable she is in her own skin. She makes my life so much better just by being a part of it. So today I want to celebrate her and all the girls who make us smile every day. 

I hope today you take some time to celebrate the girls in your life. Remind them that you are there for them. Make sure they know you will support them as they chase their dreams and fight for what they believe in.

Happy International Day of the Girl!

Two Women Causing Ripples in American Politics

The American electorate seems to be more divided than ever. It is becoming more and more apparent that if you are a woman, lgbtqi+, Muslim, or not white, your voice is not being valued. Given all of this, I want to highlight two women who are refusing to be silent or intimidated within the American political arena.   

Ilhan Omar

Born in Somali, Ilhan lived in a refugee camp in Kenya for four years during the Somali civil war before her family were given the chance to move to Minnesota, USA, when she was aged 13.

After several years of community organising, in 2016 Ilhan faced a seemingly impossible task – to push through self doubt and take the leap to run for State Representative in Minnesota’s Senate District 60B. Up against incumbent Phyllis Kahn, and a male representative of the Somali community, Mohamud Noor, Ilhan ran on a platform focused on:

“cancelling student debt, banning private prisons, increasing the number of refugees admitted to the U.S., and cutting funding for “perpetual war and military aggression.” She supports passing a national bill of rights for renters, the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act and automatically registering every eighteen-year-old to vote.” 

After she won the campaign, allegations surfaced around her marriage history (based on nothing more than a right-wing blog). The claims were found to be just as baseless as those made against Barack Obama and his birth certificate.

Are these sorts of media tactics new? No. Did they stop Ilhan from taking office? No.

In many ways, Ilhan is the embodiment of the groups President Trump wants to silence. In November, Ilhan will become the first refugee from Africa, the first Somali-American, one of the first two Muslim-American women and the first woman in a hijab to be elected to the United States Congress – this is progress.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Finally, the mainstream media has begrudgingly accepted that Alexandria deserves column space. Why? Because she won the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district! And because she is a woman, Democratic Socialist, first generation American, Spanish speaking girl from the Bronx who beat the man tipped to be the new head of the Democratic party.

Alexandria has had a life many, many others in America have had – born to Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Bronx, she has worked the 18-hour double jobs. So if she is the poster child for what can be achieved with the ‘American Dream’, why do so many from both political sides fear her rise through the ranks?

The key points from her platform are: Medicare for all, fully funded public schools and universities, universal jobs guarantee, housing as a human right, justice-system reform, immigration reform, “new green deal” to combat climate change, and campaign-finance reform. 

Am I worried Alexandria will bow to the pressures of 21st century politics or give in to pressure from this administration? No.

“Well you know, the president is from Queens, and with all due respect, half of my constituents are from Queens. I don’t think he knows how to deal with a girl from the Bronx.” – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

In a climate where lunatics are running around New York threatening to call immigration on people because they are speaking Spanish, I think its vital to have a representative like Alexandria. In a climate where executive order number 13769 (the travel ban) is still being enforced, I think it is essential to have a representative like Ilhan.

Of course, I don’t want to get lost in identity politics, these women represent more than these two issues. And clearly, these issues are not going to be solely fought and won by individuals – they need help.

So get involved! If you feel an issue is worth fighting for please get involved in local politics and register to vote in the mid-term elections.

I’m sure no one needs reminding, but here are some examples of recent action by the current administration:

The current administration continues to try to silence and diminish groups they believe to hold little power – but women like Ilhan and Alexandria show that the tides can turn, and that there may be a storm brewing.

Empowering Women Means Supporting Stronger Families

Each and every day, it’s important to celebrate the stories of women who lift themselves, their families and their communities out of economic hardship – women who embody true resilience through their ingenuity, compassion and hard work.

At SOS Children’s Villages, I am inspired by countless women around the world. Women like Sherapy, a young mother from Zambia who grew up as 1 of 10 children on the outskirts of Lusaka. Her family struggled to make ends meet, scraping together a meagre living through small-scale farming. Her parents could not afford her school fees and so she had to drop out after 6th grade. Shortly after leaving school, she got married and started working.

Life was tough for us without a stable income,” Sherapy recalls. “I worked in a salon braiding hair but my real interest was in sewing. I looked forward to the day that I would learn to sew and open my own store. But my dream was fading quickly in the daily struggle for survival.

Sherapy’s story is not unique. According to the World Food Programme, 60% of people in Zambia live below the poverty line and 42% are considered to be extremely poor. For women, the situation is compounded by their lack of educational opportunities and lower level of economic, social and political power. They fight daily to support themselves and their families.

Photo credit: SOS Children’s Villages

However, Sherapy’s story has a different ending. She was accepted into the SOS Vocational Training Center program for sewing and design in Lusaka. This training center is one of many SOS vocational training programs around the world, providing education and job training to nearly 170,000 people each year.

Upon graduation, Sherapy was accepted to an entrepreneurship program, training her in critical skills to set up and manage her own business. She then won a contract to sew 1,000 school uniforms for the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School, giving her the financial freedom to open her own tailoring shop.

Photo credit: SOS Children’s Villages

Fast forward a few years and Sherapy now employs her sisters, who earn a decent income and learn valuable entrepreneurial skills by running the shop. In addition to generating a stable income, Sherapy supports her teenage daughters to further their education and to follow the careers of their choice.

One of my daughters says she wants to be a teacher, and the other one wants to become a doctor. I want to help them achieve their dreams. As for me, I would like to stop sewing one day and instead pass on this skill to other young people. I hope to be a tailoring instructor,” she says.

For me, Sherapy is a testament to how empowering a woman with tools and resources provides opportunities to her family and strengthens her whole community. Studies have shown that when women work, they invest 90% of their income back into their families, creating transformative change within entire communities.

As we acknowledge progress and honor women like Sherapy, let us not forget the need to press forward for women around the world. We must do more and work harder to give women the support they need to not just survive, but to thrive and transform their communities, just like Sherapy has done.

This post is by Anna Safronova for SOS Children’s Villages.