Are global health leaders ready to change the world? Then they better start listening to women

Oct 8, 2019 | Blog, Global Secretariat, News

By Amanda Livingstone, White Ribbon Alliance Advocacy Officer

When the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) meets each year in New York City, global health leaders, international organizations, and donors come together to discuss big ideas with buzzy acronyms like the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Universal Health Coverage (UHC). They agree that we must work together – as a global community – to implement the changes necessary to reach these goals, all during a whirlwind week full of important speeches, high-level meetings and big promises.  

At every event I attended this year, I heard some version of “we cannot continue business as usual!” and I agree. But I’ve heard this sentiment for the last six years. How can we all agree that things must change — but then fail to do things differently?

Tired of slow action, White Ribbon Alliance launched the What Women Want campaign last year with the radical practice of involving women and girls in the healthcare decisions that matter the most to them. For one year, What Women Want asked women and girls something most had never been asked before: what do you want for your healthcare services?

The global results are out now, with country reports and advocacy campaigns based on women’s demands being released through the end of 2019. These reports show what women and girls need to receive the quality healthcare they deserve and are already making an impact on healthcare policy.

Whom are you accountable to?
Reports on the demands from women and girls who responded in Malawi and Nigeria were released during the The What Women Want discussion was moderated by White Ribbon Alliance Kenya’s Executive Director Angela Nguku, with reflections on the campaign from White Ribbon Alliance Malawi’s Hester Nyasulu and White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria’s Tariah Adams. Hester and Tariah urged the government representatives in attendance to recognize the What Women Want findings as the vital evidence for change that it is.

I asked those seated at my table who they are accountable to in their day to day jobs. Many hadn’t thought about their work in this way before, despite working every day to improve health for women and girls.  

Who will hold us accountable for delivering quality care? The individuals we aim to serve. We need to know What Women Want – and what women want is respect.” – Natalia Kanem, UNFPA


White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria's Tariah Adams holds a microphone as she speaks about the importance of listening to women and girls as part of her "What Women Want" presentation at the PMNCH Accountability Breakfast meeting at the United Nations General Assembly in 2019

White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria’s Tariah Adams during the annual PMNCH Accountability Breakfast meeting during the UN General Assembly. Photo: PMNCH. 

Business as unusual
We can know that things need to change, but making change happen is harder, and it must be driven by people.

What Women Want has given us what we need to now make business unusual by holding ourselves accountable to women and girls’ self-expressed needs. This movement has made it possible to show donors exactly what it is that women and girls want – and it was a thrill to watch my colleagues from Kenya, Malawi and Nigeria work room after room on behalf of the women and girls in their countries. Because of What Women Want, we have the evidence to show partners what women want most – now we must support and encourage each other to fund and implement that.  

These demands are not just coming from White Ribbon Alliance – responses have been gathered and supported by 356 partner organizations across 114 countries. This campaign made space for women and girls to tell us what they need, and now it is our responsibility to support them to not only raise their voices but to ensure their requests are acted upon.

What Women Want recognizes what matters most: if people are not involved in the planning, implementation, or monitoring and evaluation of the policies and programs that affect their daily lives, we will fail. What Women Want made sure the most marginalized women and girls are represented, because if they aren’t, we will fail to reach universal health coverage and the sustainable development goals. If women and girls are not directly involved in the healthcare decision making processes that impact their lives, we will fail in every global and national healthcare endeavor that is discussed and agreed upon at the next United Nations General Assembly.

What Women Want was an amazing effort to record the healthcare demands of 1.2 million women in 114 countries. And you will hear that those demands are often for basic rights. As basic as being treated with respect by health workers. We all expect and deserve that, no matter where we are from or what our context is. We especially need to listen to women, who in my opinion are always very good judges of what they need and what their priorities are. – Helen Clark, Former Prime Minister of New Zealand

I hope that one day, all of us working so hard in global health in various competing and partnering organizations will align and recognize who we are really accountable to: the men, women, girls and boys who are at the center of the policies and programs we aim to improve and implement. I also hope we work together to support these men, women, girls and boys to set their own priorities, rather than having priorities set for them by high-level decision-makers in New York and Geneva.

The power of What Women Want is that it is happening now – it is a campaign that lives and grows by giving voice to the healthcare demands of women and girls and provides a glimpse into a future that works for the people, not just the next big donor.

To paraphrase the inspiring Greta Thunberg, What Women Want isn’t here to give those of us working in the reproductive and maternal health space hope: it’s here to show us where to direct resources and how to best support women and girls.

What Women Want is what the world needs! What women want is what the world needs! Action on What Women Want is what the entire world needs! – Dr Githinji Gitahi, Global CEO Amref Health Africa, Co-Chair UHC2030

Left to right: White Ribbon Alliance’s Amanda Livingstone, White Ribbon Alliance Kenya’s Angela Nguku, Toyin Saraki, Grand Matron of WRA Nigeria, White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria’s Tariah Adams and White Ribbon Alliance Malawi’s Hester Nyasulu during the United Nations General Assembly.