By: Erin Hohlfelder; Originally posted on ONE Blog.
I recently sat down with Jill Sheffield, founder of Women Deliver, an organization that works to reduce maternal mortality and achieve universal access to reproductive health, to talk about her plans for International Women’s Day, the Women Deliver 50 list and the fight for women’s equality and empowerment.
After weeks of voting on Facebook, Women Deliver announced the “top 50 inspiring ideas and solutions that deliver for girls and women” on the eve of International Women’s Day. I know you can’t pick favorites, but as you look over the list of winners, what inspires you? What themes do you take away?
What inspired me most was the commitment and dedication that people worldwide have to girls and women. Even in the most challenging climates, people are choosing to take a stand — whether it’s a women’s charter in Libya to ensure that the rights of women are represented in a patriarchal society; a rape crisis center in Somalia, a country in which sexual violence is prevalent; or an education program for girls in Guatemala that empowers girls to create a better future and break the cycle of poverty. When people see a gap, they find a way to meet it. Those are the themes that resonated most with me: opportunity, commitment, resilience.
In your mind, what are some of the success stories for women and girls over the last year? Have we done enough to sustain momentum on this issue?
In the last year, we have seen amazing successes for girls and women around the world. We learned that maternal mortality rates are finally dropping — after two decades of stagnation, the number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth is on the decline. More and more partners, from governments to civil society to the private sector, are starting to recognize the importance of investing in girls and women. The launch of the UN Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child initiative has garnered unprecedented support for these issues. Last year, the launch of UN Women showed high-level global commitment to advancing the rights of girls and women. And there are innumerable successes happening every day, many of which are featured in the Women Deliver 50. One of the reasons we put together the list is to show that change is possible, and that the momentum for girls and women is building. By highlighting 50 of these incredible initiatives, we hope to inspire other people around the world to take action, to support these organizations, or to find their own way to promote the health and well-being of girls and women.
You have a long, personal history of being a bold advocate for women’s empowerment. What first got you into this line of work, and what has kept you motivated since?
In the 1960s, I worked as a volunteer for a family planning clinic at the Pumwani Maternity Hospital in Kenya. One day, a young woman walked into the clinic carrying a newborn baby on her front, and another, older baby on her back. She had been pregnant 11 times, but only had six living children, and she had come to us to get contraceptives. At the time, Kenya was one of only two African countries that had a national family planning program, but it still required a woman to have her husband’s signature in order to access contraceptives. At that moment I realized what an injustice it was that while we were both 27 years old, I had choices she didn’t have. I made sure she received the contraceptives, and I made a vow to myself that from that day on, I would ensure women everywhere had the widest choices possible. If you can’t plan your fertility, you can’t plan your life. While the momentum I’ve sustained comes from the inspiring people and passionate advocates I encounter each and every day, that woman in Kenya stays with me. She helps to push me forward.
I always find it interesting — and a little unfortunate — that events focused on women in development rarely have many men in the room. What do you see as men’s role in all of this work, and how do we get them more engaged?
At the Women Deliver 2007 and 2010 conferences, almost 40 percent of all the participants were men. Though we can definitely do more, I think that’s a testament to the fact that men are engaged. The leaders of most of the countries we work with are men, particularly the health and finance ministers. They are the ones making the decisions about the health and well-being of girls and women, and it’s important to recognize that some of those men have made enormous commitments to women, including UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, the Executive Director of UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, President Kikwete of Tanzania, and The Lancet editor, Richard Horton. I’ve also been inspired by grassroots organizations like Promundo and champions like journalist Nicolas Kristof. They realize that “women’s issues” are really social justice issues, and that when you invest in girls and women, everyone wins. I strongly believe that men must have a role in paving the path toward gender equality. Women deliver enormous social and economic benefits to their families, communities and nations. Men must be encouraged to raise awareness that investing in women is the right thing to do and the smart thing to do.
Throughout this week, ONE has been asking our members and friends to share stories of ordinary women who have made a difference or who are doing inspirational things. Who jumps to the front of your mind?
So many people! Actually, last year for International Women’s Day, Women Deliver highlighted 100 people that are delivering for girls and women, all of whom continue to inspire me. Activists, doctors, journalists, teachers, corporate leaders, politicians — across all sectors and issues there are women and men who do more than inspire. They change lives for the better, they create, they innovate and they fight for more fair, more inclusive, more fulfilled societies. Their achievements reinforce my conviction that when women thrive, our world does too. This year we’ve highlighted the top 50 ideas and solutions for girls and women, many of which were conceived or are being led by ordinary women and men doing extraordinary things.
How will you be celebrating International Women’s Day 2012?
This International Women’s Day, I’ll be joining international champions of women’s health at an event in Washington, DC. On March 8, it’s important that we take a moment to celebrate the victories of women worldwide and to discuss how we can combine our efforts across sectors to make a real difference in the lives of girls and women. Our work is far from over and we hope that when you read about amazing solutions, like the ones we are highlighting in the Women Deliver 50, it gives you a renewed energy to work toward building a better world for girls and women.