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Strong Women Save Lives
At Management Sciences for Health (MSH), we say that leaders aren’t born: Leadership is learned.
If we only look to those in official positions of power, whether in the health system or in political offices, we may be missing the most influential leaders to develop and empower: the women in the households and on the frontlines of the health system.
Head of household
As health caretaker for her family, a woman requires all the characteristics of a good leader. She has to multi-task, prioritize, negotiate, manage, inspire, and persuade. The stakes are high: the strength of her leadership can ensure the survival of her family.
Empowering women on the frontlines
Women are more likely to work on the frontlines of the health system but less likely to hold formal positions of leadership in the health system.
While much of the health worker data in developing countries is not disaggregated by gender, one study in Ethiopia found men accounted for 80 percent of clinicians and specialists—those at the top of the health worker pyramid.
Women health practitioners are more likely to face discrimination based on marital status, be expected to conform to male work models, be subjected to harassment and violence while working, and be employed in low and entry level positions. Furthermore, women often are compensated poorly, resulting in a cadre of quasi-volunteerism: unpaid or underpaid. In all industries combined, women are compensated at a rate of 40 percent less than men for their work.
The personal safety of women health care workers is also a primary concern in many countries. Women are often subjected to harassment or sexual violence as health workers. One Rwandan study found 39 percent of health workers experienced some form of workplace violence. This affects recruitment as well as retention of women in critical health care positions.
And the global need for more skilled health workers is great. Over 70 percent of maternal mortality in developing countries could be prevented if every woman had access to a skilled health worker when giving birth.
Despite these global hardships, women are major contributors to positive health outcomes, from promoting health in the household, to reducing maternal and child mortality in communities.
My colleague, Celia Tusiime Kakande, blogged about this on International Women’s Day:
“For most of my life, women in Uganda—as in most countries—were treated as inferior to men. Girls were less likely to be educated than their brothers, and had little control over the direction of their lives Many girls grew up being told how to act, eat, and talk; many women were regarded as little more than domestic caregivers.
Women in Uganda now hold more leadership positions than ever before—35 percent of the seats in Parliament are now occupied by women, and our Speaker of Parliament and Minister of Health are women. Quality family planning, safe motherhood, and HIV & AIDS services have helped lower the maternal mortality rate from 435 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2006 to 310 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2010.
At MSH, our work to advance the well-being of women and girl extends to leadership development, clinical training, technical assistance to programs that use community health workers (most of whom are women) and literacy programs. Through one five-year project, MSH trained or provided technical assistance to more than 4,000 senior female leaders and engaged 27,000 women in learning programs.
It’s not only about getting women to leadership and management positions, but also making sure that women see themselves as leaders wherever they are in the health system. If a woman is impacting the life and wellbeing of others, then she is a leader.
“Ugandan women have gained ground at the highest levels of leadership. They are taking control of their lives and their families’ health.”
It is this spirit that inspires MSH to continue our work in Uganda, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and in over 60 countries worldwide.
By creating, legitimizing and empowering women leaders, we will empower beneficiaries of the health system, save lives, and improve health outcomes for all.
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Belkis Giorgis, PhD, is senior technical advisor for the Leadership, Management and Governance Project, led by MSH. Celia Tusiime Kakande, MA, is Chief of Party of STRIDES for Family Health, a project led by MSH.
(Portions of this post were published on the MSH Global Health Impact blog.)