International Women’s Day: What I celebrate

Photo: USAID ASSIST Project

March 8th marks International Women’s Day, and offers an excellent opportunity to reflect on contributions and progress made to improve the lives of women and girls in the past year, identify where inequalities still prevent women and girls from realizing their full potential, and advocate for further changes to increase equal opportunities. As a physician, I know that newborn survival is closely aligned with women’s empowerment and gender equality, and that improving nutrition, family planning and education opportunities for girls and women are the most effective interventions to prevent high-risk pregnancies and to save mothers’ and babies’ lives. When couples have the ability to decide how many children they have and space their pregnancies adequately, they tend to have fewer children, and their newborns are more likely to be healthy.

I have spent my entire career working to help women, men, boys, girls and newborns have opportunities to live healthy lives and to achieve what they aspire for; I studied medicine, worked as a physician and a clinician in refugee camps,  led global health projects, and now, as the founder and President of Women WI-HER LLC (Influencing Health, Education, and Rule of Law) and senior gender technical advisor on the USAID Applying Science to Strengthen and Improve Systems (ASSIST) Project. I look back on the past year and a half of the USAID ASSIST project, and how we have worked to improve the lives of women and girls, with pride and excitement. In close partnership with our field offices, we have begun to spark change and improve health outcomes in many countries and communities.

The USAID ASSIST approach involves systematically identifying and analyzing gender-related gaps in outcomes and norms that influence risk factors, access to care, care-seeking behavior and equality of treatment among beneficiaries. The approach addresses those gaps and norms in concert to generate shifts in thinking at the individual, household, and community levels. In Ukraine, the project works to decrease alcohol and tobacco use among pregnant women. This improves the health of the pregnant women and also directly benefits the health of their babies. In Uganda, we are working to improve the quality, accessibility and utilization of HIV services by women in the antenatal and postnatal periods. In Botswana and India, our project works specifically to improve maternal survival rates through quality improvement interventions and in Mali and Niger, our project works to empower women through family planning service delivery. In Tanzania, we are working to improve the quality of antenatal care (ANC) which directly affects newborn health, since mothers who do not receive high-quality ANC and childbirth care are more likely, along with their newborns, to suffer childbirth complications and serious consequences.

But empowering women and girls and improving newborn survival cannot be as impactful without involving male partners. Gender is relational, and without working to transform traditional gender roles of men and boys, we will not fully be able to empower women and men and to achieve improved health outcomes for mothers and newborns. Through ASSIST, we work to engage male partners to attend ANC visits and PMTCT programming. Involving fathers in maternal health has been shown to improve health outcomes among mothers and newborns. Involving men in PMTCT services has been shown to improve retention of mother baby pairs, and by offering HIV testing for male partners at ANC and PMTCT appointments, the USAID ASSIST project empowers both men and women to know their HIV status and enter into treatment programs, which leads to a decrease in HIV positive newborns.

I am proud of what we have been able to accomplish in the past year and a half to improve the health outcomes and lives of women, girls and their families. I look forward with even greater excitement to this coming year, knowing that, with the strong commitment of our field offices, senior leadership and all staff to integrate gender across the USAID ASSIST Project, we will capture lessons learned and best practices to integrate gender into improvement, and we will continue our deep commitment to improve health outcomes for women, men, boys, girls and newborns.

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