Listen. Invest. Focus on Human Rights. A Call to Action for PMNCH

By Betsy McCallon, CEO White Ribbon Alliance

Imagine if before every decision was made, we asked ourselves three simple questions — are we truly listening to women? Are we investing in country-level impact? And, are we embracing core human rights as much as technical interventions?

The Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH)’s Partners Forum was held in New Delhi, India last week and prompted me to reflect on where we are as a partnership, and where we need to go next.

Collectively, PMNCH partners — which now include partner countries; donors and foundations; intergovernmental organizations; non-governmental organizations; academic, research and training institutions; adolescents and youth; healthcare professional associations; private sector partners, UN agencies and global financing mechanisms — have contributed to tremendous progress for improved maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health outcomes. White Ribbon Alliance has been a member of PMNCH since 2005, and for the last four years, I’ve served on the Board of Directors and had the honor of serving as the Chair of the Partnership’s NGO Constituency.

While the PMNCH Partners Forum’s opening ceremony highlighted the power of citizen-led accountability, there must be a greater shift in power before citizens will feel empowered to demand the quality healthcare they need and deserve.

We’ve come a long way from the top-down approach that ruled our early days. Campaigns including The Usual Suspects which asked high-level speakers to step aside for citizens at global events; citizens hearings and dialogues, which bring together people and governments at the community and country level; the establishment of a very active adolescent and youth consistency, authentically embracing the idea that ‘everyone has a part to play’; and the creation of the PMNCH Forum itself, have all helped to put people — namely women and girls — at the center, identifying the challenges and solutions for their own care.

But it’s not enough. Now it is time to go beyond ensuring that civil society and young people have seat at the table, to shifting the power dynamics and challenging the status quo.

There is an inherent challenge in the structure of the Partnership that can sometimes stifle — rather than encourage — the more movement building aspects of the advocacy and accountability agenda. Unrepresented — or more importantly less-powerful constituencies — should not feel they are asking ‘permission’ to move forward. They must feel empowered to lead based on what they know are the right priorities. There are several things that we can do to facilitate ownership where it belongs: in the hands of the people.

First, we must be clearer on what we mean by ‘country constituency’ and country leadership. We must distinguish the role of government leadership and the broader role of people, and the organizations that support people’s voices and people-led movements. We need to challenge assumptions by global players of the role of civil society and youth organizations — particularly in monitoring and accountability — which is a critical role, but not an easy one. There are inherent risks to civil society organizations that speak out and it can’t be left to them alone, particularly without proper resourcing.

Moving forward, the Partnership can ensure a meaningful shift in power by making a few more conscious changes:

  • Listening: We must truly build an inclusive agenda by being distinguished listeners, rather than speakers. We heard this request from the opening session right on through the Forum. We have an opportunity to listen with the What Women Want campaign and should seize it by designing and aligning our efforts to the demands defined directly by girls and women.
  • Investment: We must walk the talk about putting people at the center and translate it to directing funds to where they can have the biggest impact: at the national and community level. Global partners can take the lead and the Partnership can play a brokering or match-making role and place significant attention to engagement strategies with the membership, so they aren’t only counted as members, not only represented or heard, but are active in driving the agenda.
  • Human Rights: It’s been great to see more of a focus on multisectoral action. These are, however, largely presented as technical solutions. For example, we’ve lauded progress on health outcomes and partnerships with Ministries of Health while turning a blind-eye to closing spaces for civil society, media, and citizen participation in the broader political arena. We have to re-embrace the move toward a stronger intersection with democracy, governance and human rights. It is time to be bold in deciding what kind of communities, nation and world we want to live in, invest in, and hold ourselves accountable to that vision.

Imagine if before every decision was made, we asked ourselves three simple questions — are we truly listening to women? Are we investing in country-level impact? And, are we embracing core human rights as much as technical interventions? Now imagine that our answers are a resounding yes, yes and yes. The result will be citizens who are empowered to demand the quality healthcare they need, countries who are better prepared to respond and women, children and adolescents surviving, thriving and transforming their societies.

Last week, the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH) brought together 1,200 partners dedicated to the Every Woman Every Child movement and the achievement of the UN Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, in New Delhi, India. Hosted by the Government of India, the Forum focused on improving multisectoral action for results, sharing country solutions and capturing the best practices and knowledge within and among the health sector and related sectors. It also emphasized the importance of people-centered accountability and bringing forward the voices and lived realities of women, children and adolescents through innovative programming and creative projects. White Ribbon Alliance attended with members from the Global Secretariat, WRA Tanzania, WRA Nigeria and WRA India. Betsy McCallon, CEO of White Ribbon Alliance and Chair the PMNCH NGO Constituency, spoke at the closing plenary session, sharing key lessons for cross-sectoral partnerships and a strong call to action for the Partnership going forward. Click here to read this article on White Ribbon Alliance’s website.

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Inspiring and convening advocates to uphold the right of all women to be safe and healthy before, during and after pregnancy.

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