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Youth! Cinema! Lectures! Women Deliver 2016 – a roller coaster ride to the health and well-being of women and children in the era of the SDGs!

By Shakira Choonara
on May 20, 2016

Going through information on the previous editions of Women Deliver, I recall being awestruck by the list of speakers, number of female participants and the types of issues discussed; I must say the #WD2016 conference has lived up to my expectations. Women Deliver began in 2007 as a global conference to address maternal mortality. This fourth edition of the Women Deliver global conference was one of the largest yet with over 5000 participants from over a 150 countries.

It’s always exciting to attend large global gatherings such as #WD2016, particularly so this time, with the focus on the Sustainable Development Goals (perhaps Sustainable Development Girls – judging by the number of female participants in the images online! where are the men?).  SDG#5 (Gender Equality) was the focus of the conference, but the intersectional nature of the SDGs allowed for the conference to touch upon the others as well. Such gatherings always provide an invaluable space for meeting a range of very diverse individuals. You get to learn about different countries, work and projects at first hand – invaluable for global health, and much more effective than reading about these online!  What I definitely enjoyed was having the opportunity for quick effective learning – learning about new and creative innovations which I could take back home for immediate use or find ways of using such innovations in the future.

Youth Rocking #WD2016!

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Innovative Conference Formats

Multimedia was given its due at #WD2016 which boasted an Arts and Cinema corner – a place where films were screened throughout the day. Films from across the world, particularly the global South were screened. They were riveting; in fact I would go as far as saying is that I absorbed much information through watching these films. In the short space of two hours I witnessed the unacceptable mass sterilization of migrants in the United States, an unfair judicial system in Mexico especially around the abuse of women, and the heartbreaking needs of many children in Uganda affected by the nodding syndrome.  If it were up to me, I would have the films screened in an IMAX theatre with pop-corn during the conference! You never know, we might see a rise of health-systems directors, actors and actresses who finally bridge the researcher-policy gap.

A giant turd sure is a good way to draw attention to the critical role of water in our lives! I first spotted WaterAid International by their #Pooselfies with a walking blob of poo in the exhibition hall. Their session provocatively posed questions around imagining giving birth without #hygiene #sanitation – and let’s face it, water is the most basic component of human life and our health system. It is now given substantial attention under #SDG 6 (Water & Sanitation). They also screened a list of great films with powerful messages.

#PooPicture – (Shakira’s First World Problems- I need to find out if it’s real poo, I didn’t get a chance to ask that – sure didn’t smell like poo!)

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If the poo wasn’t exciting enough, the Menstruation Tent in the exhibition hall provided training in a tent, illustrating how a few pillows could provide a safe environment to discuss menstruation challenges! It felt different, it was different and facilitated an excellent flow of communication around menstruation issues, e.g. the sort of sanitary pads women in rural Malawi wear (with even blankets shaped as nappies), how in India, and indeed in many poor parts of the world, women make use of anything absorbent e.g.  hair, leaves or sand to manage menstruation, and of course the “never talked about” issue #menopause. We were taken through the menstruation wheel tool & pledged our support to the cause! I quite like the tent idea for youth engagement and possibly just about anything else! I also think the menstrual cup chandelier or #shechandelier would be an apt addition to the tent!

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Critical Discussions at #WD2016

Sessions and plenaries were held throughout the day on sexual and reproductive issues ranging from abortion, UHC, the SDGs and even financing particularly meant for Women and Girls (enter the Global Financing Facility- GFF). Stakeholders and people present were all very enthusiastic about SDG 5. Not sure “the world out there” is on the same page (yet)…

But the data revolution aware of ‘gender’ made waves during the conference when Melinda Gates announced that there would be $80 million committed to improving data collection! While I agree with the need for data, particularly from a demographer’s point of view, one thing I would like to see is perhaps not a complete overhaul but an attempt to address significant gaps especially around vulnerable populations e.g. women with disabilities whose reproductive health rights are severely overlooked.

I must say though, that the world seems to be suffering from MDG amnesia. Our discussions seem to have started anew. A clean slate with little discussion around what was achieved under the MDGs, our mistakes, lessons learnt and how to build from there. Acknowledging and addressing the gap between the MDGs and SDGs is somewhat already set in motion, but I think we need to possibly take a step back to take a step forward. In fact, I felt the youth may be more conscious of this – #WD2016 youth scholars Anshul Kastor  and Shanza Ali were discussing failures of the MDGs, such as how achieving quantitative statistics in Bangladesh hasn’t translated to reality! Catch the Youth For Change Video interview on #SDGS. This amnesia extended to the Zika virus, which could also be tackled drawing in lessons from malaria, but it seems that even high-level panelists wanted to start on a clean slate and forget the not-so distant past!

Again, while commitments were made, there was a sense of trying to find solutions, but how concrete they are is yet to be seen! The GFF, which promises improved accountability and financing of the under-resourced global South, is thought of as a magic-bullet to address financing issues especially around women and girls, but its promises are a far cry from the reality I’ve seen during my doctoral research around financial management. We’ve learnt,  at least in the South African context, bureaucracy, lack of necessary equipment, and skills or even decision-making power are some of the important considerations, which I’m not sure the GFF alone will resolve. Again moral leadership is probably needed more in our countries; perhaps if I may suggest, ‘Dear GFF’ please help us tackle corruption before sending any more funds our way!

But we have to start somewhere and I think with the mix of attendees to #WD2016 we might actually achieve our goals! Perhaps you could all start by committing to the Deliver for Good Initiative ! Other highlights of the week included the launch of the UHC Initiative by the Elders and the Cultural Evening at the beautiful Tivoli Gardens on Wednesday 18th May, one of the best social events I’ve ever seen – from watching a beautiful Danish show, strolling through the gardens and letting our hair down! In addition to having compulsory cinema corners at every conference, from now on all social events should be held at amusement parks (#Young Dictator)!

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Lastly and the most important update of all, I posed that I be offered the job of the Director General of the World Health Organization on social media (no response has been received as yet, but let’s not be pessimistic! No news is good news! And someone will eventually notice).  It’s time for a ‘Sustainable Development Girl’ such as myself to be at the very top of the Global Health Architecture!

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