This post originally appeared on LMGforHealth.org.Fifteen years ago, Dr. Belkis Giorgis was in North Nigeria at a health clinic. At this clinic, Giorgis asked the midwives why women continue to prefer to deliver their babies at home. The midwives told her that the clinic throws away the placenta after delivery, while giving birth at home allowed the women to bury their placenta as is traditionally done. Giorgis then inquired why the midwives did not fix this seemingly easy obstacle. “I don’t have a voice,” the midwife said. “The men [at the clinic] say the women should get over it.”
It was this visit that led Giorgis to wonder: What if women were the health leaders? Would services be more women friendly?
Giorgis’ story set the foundation for LMG’s panel, “Women Deliver as those who Manage, Lead, and Govern for Health,” on Wednesday, May 29, at the Women Deliver 2013 Conference. Joining Giorgis on the panel moderated by LMG director Dr. Jim Rice was Honorable Ruth Nvumetta Kavuma, former parliamentarian in Uganda, Constance Newman, senior team leader of gender equality and health at IntraHealth, and Dr. Narjis Rizvi, an assistant professor at Aga Khan University.
The diverse panel clearly illustrated that women are not well represented in leadership positions in health systems. In Kenya, Newman said, 43% of the health workforce is male, but 77% of these men are in senior leadership positions. Conversely, women are 57% of the health workforce, but make up only 23% of senior leaders in Kenya’s health sector.
Explaining this pattern, Newman said, “Women and girls face a force field of accumulating inequalities and disadvantage starting at their primary school years and continuing to their retirement years.”
Rizvi reported a similar pattern in Pakistan, “Despite Pakistan’s laws and constitution and the work of the Aga Khan Development Network, women are still underrepresented in senior leadership positions.”
The panelists, however, were adamant that this pattern can change.
“We need to put women in leadership positions. Let them make the mistakes. The men make mistakes, but when women make the mistakes, people act like it’s the worst thing in the world. We need to support them through these mistakes,” Kavuma told the crowd. Supporting women’s confidence in the public eye is key to building strong women leaders, she stated.
And it’s not just up to women to make the change. Giorgis said:
“There are many opportunities [to advance women’s leadership], start by making sure we put forward the justification that women can lead. Women are resourceful. Women persevere. Women are capable of leading. It requires advocacy not only from women, but from men as well.”
“Change the behavior, ideas, and lenses that men see women leaders through,” Rice said, and we will see progress.
Rice and Newman ended the panel with a request for evidence. “We want to move from anecdotes to rigorous impact studies,” Rice said. Newman continued with a request for the audience: “Invest in participatory action research, where women look at the data of their own lives. Understand it, frame it, and build upon it.”
Sarah Lindsay is a communications specialist with LMG at MSH.