Breaking Barriers For Gender Equity & Good Governance

Oftentimes, when people think about governance the image that appears is political in nature and national in scale. However, governance happens across sectors and at every level, from community organizations to the United Nations. In the health sector, good governance is a matter of life and death, especially for moms and babies.

Nora O'Connell, from Save the Children, opens the panel discussion on building political will for maternal, newborn, and child health. (Photo: Michele Alexander/MSH)
Nora O'Connell, from Save the Children, opens the panel discussion on building political will for maternal, newborn, and child health. (Photo: Michele Alexander/MSH)

Earlier this month, I joined an expert panel in Washington, DC to discuss Building Political Will for Gender Equity to Achieve Maternal, Newborn, and Child Survival Goals. This panel was the third and final event in a series hosted by Jhpiego, Management Sciences for Health (MSH), Save the Children, and the Save the Children Action Network highlighting key successes and challenges in advancing maternal and child survival around the world.

Together, the other panelists and I discussed how gender inequality – discrimination, gender-based violence (GBV), child marriage, denial of opportunities in public and political life, and more – contributes to maternal, newborn, and child deaths;  how international, national, and local political will and accountability are addressing gender equity; and  the importance of decentralized responsibility and leadership for national priorities in reaching every last girl with the services and resources she needs to survive and thrive.

Nora O’Connell, Save the Children’s Associate Vice President for Public Policy and Advocacy, opened the event, emphasizing the need for results and a human-focused approach for achieving gender equality. Following Nora, the United Nations Foundation’s Vice President for Girls and Women Strategy Dr. Daniela Ligiero discussed the development of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and how Goal 5 – achieving gender equality – and Goal 3 – good health and well-being for all – intersect. To achieve these two goals, the development community must identify the poor and most vulnerable women and girls, integrate development efforts, and innovate. Jhpiego/USAID’s flagship Maternal and Child Survival Program’s Director of Gender Myra Betron continued the conversation, sharing how GBV, discrimination, and stigma negatively impact maternal, newborn, and child care and hinder gender equality efforts.

From left to right, panelists Dr. Daniela Ligiero, Nora O'Connell, Myra Betron, and Jason Wright next to an event poster. (Photo: Michele Alexander/MSH)
From left to right, panelists Dr. Daniela Ligiero, Nora O'Connell, Myra Betron, and Jason Wright next to an event poster. (Photo: Michele Alexander/MSH)

Following these impressive women, I shared two key ways we can advance maternal, newborn, and child survival through gender equity and good governance:

Women Lead

Empowering women to lead is essential to combating maternal, newborn, and child mortality. The USAID-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project, led by MSH, established the East Africa Women’s Mentoring Network, which has trained women leaders like Kenya’s Caren Wakoli. Caren cites the mentorship this network offers as the key that unlocks doors for both mentors and mentees to advance women’s leadership potential and save lives. Initiatives like the East Africa Women’s Mentoring Network build women’s self-confidence and leadership skills and enable them to become passionate, successful advocates for women’s and children’s health and development.

Breaking Barriers

Building women’s leadership capacity is only one side of the coin. Health system and government leaders must address barriers to gender equality in health service access and quality as inclusion and gender-responsiveness are two enablers of effective health sector governance. Although breaking barriers can be difficult, the LMG Project governance guide for Engaging Stakeholders shares 20 ways to break barriers and facilitate gender-responsiveness.

For example, the Ethiopian Federal Ministry of Health (FMOH) established a Gender Directorate in 2008, but they soon recognized the need for gender-awareness training to institutionalize policies and change behaviors. To fill this need, the LMG Project supported the creation of a National Gender Training Manual to train all FMOH staff at the federal and regional levels. This manual and the gender trainings support the FMOH’s efforts to institutionalize gender-awareness and foster gender equality throughout the country.

Developing strong leadership and fostering good governance in the health sector are essential if we are to achieve maternal, newborn, and child survival goals. However, it is not enough to build only individual leadership capacity or stronger systems. Instead, we must expand the supply of gender-aware leaders and promote inclusive decision-making processes. To end preventable child and maternal deaths, women need to be actively and equally involved in the development of policies, priorities, and services that are being designed to respond to their demands.