Pressing for Progress: An Interview With Dr. Roopa Dhatt on Women in Global Health

Women marching for gender equality. (Source: UN Women National Committee Aotearoa New Zealand)

On Thursday, March 8, the world celebrates International Women’s Day (IWD). Today, women and girls around the globe will join together to reflect on women’s accomplishments and celebrate the acts of courage shown by women who are playing a role in shaping their communities and advocating for efforts around gender equality. This year’s theme of “Press for Progress” is focused on the need to keep momentum going to ensure that we achieve gender parity. This theme is also right in line with the recent news and media attention surrounding women who have been speaking out about sexual harassment and assault. Many women are standing in solidarity and saying “no more,” as demonstrated by the #MeToo campaign that was originally started by an activist named Tarana Burke. Burke created this campaign to reach sexual assault survivors in underserved communities and encourage women globally to speak up about their experiences.

Roopa Dhatt, MD, Co-Founder & Executive Director of Women in Global Health. (Source: Women in Global Health)

To mark the occasion of IWD and continue the #MeToo discussion, I sat down with Dr. Roopa Dhatt, the Co-Founder and Executive Director of Women in Global Health. We discussed her reflections on International Women’s Day, efforts to integrate violence against women initiatives into global health, and why closing the gender gap in global health leadership matters so much.

Lanice: You are the Co-founder and Executive Director of Women in Global Health, which was established in 2015. What was your motivation for starting the organization?

Roopa: Through my personal and student leadership journey, I discovered gender bias — unconscious and conscious — and realized how women leaders are judged by different standards. I felt passionate that the next generation of global health leadership must be different — more diverse, inclusive and representative of the world. I was also inspired and encouraged by other women leaders in global health, both peer leaders and pioneers in the field, to work together to ensure that women’s contributions no longer go unrecognized and that women are perceived as thought leaders and decision makers in improving the health and well-being of their communities and the world.

“…the next generation of global health leadership must be different — more diverse, inclusive and representative of the world.”

As an Indian-American from Punjab state, I have seen how women in my culture have weak power and influence, limited access to higher education and work, and are not allowed to choose their own partners. Due to the lack of visibility and recognition of women leadership in global health, a group of like-minded young women and I co-founded Women in Global Health, a movement striving to bring greater gender equity to global health. Our movement was conceived by a group of four young women in Spring 2015, each of whom found her own unique pathway to global health, but was asking the same question: what more can we do to elevate female leadership and bring it center stage in global health for greater gender equity?

Lanice: This year the theme for International Women’s Day is #PressforProgress. What does that mean to you, and what progress have you seen so far in achieving gender equity in global health leadership?

Roopa: “Press for Progress” is about uniting and advancing the global movement for gender equality, women’s rights, and empowerment in our own spheres of influence. We cannot stand by waiting for change; we each have a responsibility to advance the dialogue, shift mind-sets, change institutional policies and transform societies for greater gender equality. In global health, we have seen significant leadership on gender equality. At the top of the list is WHO Director General, Dr. Tedros, who not only made gender equality a top priority in his leadership, but also acted on those commitments, both by achieving gender parity in his senior leadership cabinet (two-thirds majority posts held by highly qualified, geographically diverse and talented women) and integrating this into the WHO’s 13th Global Program of Work over the next five years. Yet, even at the WHO, the work is only starting. Transforming organizational culture at the global, regional and national levels requires much more commitment and action from all of the WHO and member states that govern it.

We also have seen the academic community coming together to raise the visibility of women’s leadership in global health. 2017 marked the inaugural Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, hosted by Stanford Global Health, where Women in Global Health served as an implementing partner. That brought together 500 women and men from nearly 70 countries, and 250 organizations on this theme. Moreover, we are also seeing greater leadership from the private sector on women’s leadership; an example is GE Healthcare and Women in Global Health’s Heroines of Health, an honorary recognition of women who are at the frontline, taking on the toughest global health challenges in their communities. We also must recognize the thought leadership that Ilona Kickbusch provided to global health by launching the #WGH100 lists, which recognize women leaders and experts in global health.

Lanice: Over the course of last year and so far in 2018, we have seen many women speak up about experiencing sexual violence and sexual harassment. How important is it that the global health community addresses this violence against women, which affects about 35% of women globally?

Roopa: The challenges facing the global health community are centered on gender dimensions. Since 71% of the health and social care workforce globally are women, and unpaid care represents half of women’s contribution to global wealth, resilient health systems and Universal Health Coverage cannot be achieved without consideration of the gendered aspects of the health workforce. When we look closely at the health sector from a gendered lens, women are often under-resourced, underpaid or unpaid, under-trained, and not formally recognized. Moreover, they face greater harassment — sexual and physical- than men, including gender-based violence (GBV).

At the 4th Global Human Resources for Health Forum in Dublin, we hosted a storytelling evening, Lives in their hands, where we heard about the personal safety concerns of female health workers– whether it was Miatta Gbanya from Liberia, who delivered a baby by the roadside at night, or Rushaana Gallow, who faces sexual assault and death every day as she enters the “red zone” in the Cape Flats in South Africa as a first responder. These gender dimensions and personal safety concerns are the reason the WHO and Women in Global Health launched the Gender Equity Hub in the Global Health Workforce Network. We seek policy-oriented solutions to address gender inequities in the health and social care workforce — with a key priority to promote employment free from harassment, discrimination and violence.

Finally, equal numbers of women and men in leadership in global health and other sectors will reduce sexual harassment at work; this is because sexual harassment and violence is almost always committed by men and is a misuse of male power. A critical mass of women in the workplace makes it possible to change organizational culture and outlaw such abusive behavior. A critical mass of women in the workplace also makes it more likely that women will report abuses and be believed. The UN has recognized, for example, that more female peacekeepers and female police will reduce sexual violence against vulnerable populations in emergencies and conflicts. Sexual abuse and violence exist in the shadows as we have seen from #MeToo reports from many sectors. It is an issue for men just as much as women. To solve it, men must also take responsibility for stamping out abuse and making male colleagues accountable, not least because sexual harassment and violence in global health has serious costs for everyone.

Lanice: The 8th UN Secretary General, Ban Kai-Moon, stated, “There is one universal truth, applicable to all countries, cultures and communities: violence against women is never acceptable, never excusable, and never tolerable.” What are your reflections on that, and on what does that means for prioritizing action?

Roopa: I 100% agree! Action is needed; prioritizing action is not a choice, but a must. For us to reach our maximum potential as a society, women and girls must be able to live full lives without fear and violence. Without that, everything we are doing is failing at least half the population and negatively impacting all genders.

Lanice: Your mission statement notes that you work on “building a global movement that brings together all genders and backgrounds to achieve gender equality in global health leadership.” Can you tell me more about the WGH mission and the role you see women leaders playing to ensure that more violence prevention initiatives are incorporated into global health programs?

Roopa: Our vision is to achieve gender equality in global health leadership, as we know that gender equality leads to smarter global health. Our mission is based on the role of leadership–women, men and all genders practicing gender transformative leadership. Our approach is based on our foundation of being a movement and engaging all people, stakeholders, and sectors, at global, regional, and local levels, to achieve our vision. Everyone has a sphere of influence that can shape individual, interpersonal, institutional, societal, community and policy environments. We recognize this and tap into this potential using a holistic approach for greater gender equality in global health leadership.

Women as leaders have the opportunity to be gender transformative and create programs and policies that are enabling for all genders. We know that gender-based violence (GBV) impacts every aspect of society from an early age to ageing populations. Regardless of which silo of global health one’s work is in, gender is crosscutting and so is GBV. Therefore, there is an opportunity to address GBV. In one’s individual leadership role there are a few simple practices that can be integrated:

  • Build Momentum: Raise the profile of GBV in your sphere of influence — bring attention to the issue through stories, data and other evidence.
  • Create Enabling Environments: Look into your organization’s gender impact assessment tools and see whether there is a GBV component.
  • Sustain Change: Integrate it into your policy and program priorities and link your efforts to larger global initiatives.
Lanice — In what ways can the global health community work together to ensure that more violence against women prevention programs are integrated into global health programs?

Roopa — In Women in Global Health, we propose applying a gender lens and using a gender transformative approach in one’s leadership. The global health community, closely linked to the development community, is recognizing more and more how interlinked health and wellbeing are to broader determinants of health, especially gender. Women and men are impacted differently, particularly in changing socio-political environments, as a result of gender social norms, roles, and other axes of identity and inequality (i.e. age, poverty, literacy, geography, disability, and sexuality). Gender inequalities contribute to violence against women, with key factors of violence being linked to institutional and behavioral factors. Moreover, in the context of violence against women, the dialogue needs to be broader and discussed as gender based violence (GBV).

All genders have a role to play in deconstructing the power structures that promote inequities based on gender. Men, similarly to women, have a responsibility to learn about the socially constructed gender norms and roles, and the inequalities these norms create in limiting health and well being for all people. By being aware, people can begin to address their own biases and the barriers around them, and design context specific solutions at multiple levels to shift the drivers that are promoting GBV.

Lanice Williams was a 2016–2017 Global Health Corps fellow at Global Health Council in Washington, D.C. Follow Lanice on Twitter and join the conversation using the hashtags #IWD2018 and #PressForProgress.

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