What it means to create a 'women's health development army'

Health extension worker Alemitu Markos talks with women from a community in Durame, Ethiopia. How can the international development community help achieve a better future for girls and women? Photo by: UNICEF Ethiopia / CC BY-NC-ND

I attended the fourth Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, two weeks ago. I listened to fascinating stories of thousands of impassioned advocates, policymakers, researchers and young people in attendance and shared the lessons from my own experience nationally and globally. Throughout the conference my consistent message was that we need to work together as conscious disruptors of the status quo.

Over the next few years, the Sustainable Development Goals will offer us a unique opportunity to deliver results in integrated and collaborative way. They will enable us to tackle the many global challenges we are facing — from conflict and forced migration, natural disasters and climate change, to pandemics and antimicrobial resistance. It is only through collaboration that we can achieve peace, security and positive health outcomes for all.

The buzz from Women Deliver 2016

Nearly 6,000 health experts, women's rights advocates, government and private sector stakeholders from around the world gathered this week in Copenhagen to talk about how the global development community can deliver for women and girls. Devex Associate Editor Kelli Rogers shares the buzz from the fourth Women Deliver conference.

We will achieve a better future for girls and women if we make them the center of our actions and decisions. To do this, we need to respect country ownership and assure enhanced sustainable domestic financing.

In order to prioritize women and girls, countries should increasingly own their development priorities and ensure domestic financing. From 2005 to 2012, during my leadership in Ethiopia’s Ministry of Health, I saw the importance of making it clear to partners and donors that the need to honor domestic priorities and work through our country’s systems, rather than creating parallel structures.

“When investments are made in girls and women, all of global society stands to benefit.”

— Tedros Adhanom, Ethiopian minister of foreign affairs

For example, the Ethiopian government instituted a pooled Millennium Development Goal Health Fund, which gave the ministry the right to determine how that money could be most effectively used. Instead of meeting pre-set objectives, the funds were directed to areas where they had the most impact based on our priorities. This allowed us to identify our needs and respond appropriately by using the funds to cater to the health needs of our society better.

The country-donor relationship can be a strong one, built on a shared vision of success. As a core principle, countries should be in the driver’s seat on decisions that affect them.

When you give more people the knowledge and skills needed to intervene, you build a stronger, more responsive health system. Ethiopia went on to achieve all of the health-related Millennium Development Goals, securing huge improvements in reproductive, maternal and child health.

In order to realize success, governments need to listen to the communities, invest in their needs and include them in decision-making, all the while collaborating with a range of global partners. Smart investments in training, infrastructure and health service expansion are catalyzed by outside support — but they should be determined by each country.

In this context, I cannot stress enough the importance of empowering girls and women. Our girls deserve equal rights and access to the best possible services from the moment they are born. They have a right to healthy childhoods, safe pregnancies, quality educations and equal opportunity to employment. And when investments are made in girls and women, all of global society stands to benefit. Not only can we achieve ambitious health and education goals; we can also reduce poverty and improve our society. Investment in girls and women has a multiplier effect in all our endeavors to achieve a just, prosperous and equal society and that is why it has to be at the center of the implementation of the sustainable development goals.

We also need a change in mindset. Improving the lives of women has a ripple effect of changing the lives of the family and the community. We are guaranteed of the dividend if we change the life of a girl or a woman. I have seen that firsthand through the 39,000 women health extension workers of my country whom we trained, recruited with the fullest fringe benefits of a civil servant and empowered as change agents in their community and society. I also witnessed this fact through the 3 million women volunteers whom we empowered as a health development army to transform their society.

Each and every woman has her own unique story of change, story of empowerment and story of transformation not only in health but also in education, nutrition and development.

I urge that we simply cannot accept a status quo. Girls and women should be at the center of our actions. We need to to step up our actions, work together and disrupt the status quo.

Interested in more stories about women's and girl’s health? Make sure to follow the Devex coverage of the fourth Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. Join the conversation by tagging @devex and using #WD2016.

The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus

    Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus is director-general of the World Health Organization. His distinguished health leadership career spans nearly 30 years. As minister of health from 2005 to 2012, Dr. Tedros transformed Ethiopia’s health system by investing in infrastructure, building the health workforce, and developing innovative ways to direct resources where they were most needed.