As I flew out from the Himalayan foothills into the country of a thousand hills, I thought about India and Rwanda. 1.3 billion fewer people live in Rwanda than in India. Rwanda is 125 times smaller than India. Rwandan Air flies to India. Rwanda is home to many Indians.
The 2019 Women Leaders in Global Health conference (WLGH 2019) was held in Rwanda last weekend (9-10 November), and the baton shifted to India to host the 2020 Women Leaders in Global Health conference.
I was fortunate to be at the Women Leaders in Global Health conference in Kigali, Rwanda. By far the largest congregation of women in global health so far, the convening had 1063 attendees from 81 countries. To facilitate women from the field to be an integral part of this platform, 166 scholarships were offered and the registration fee was waived for more than 500 participants. Each panel was thoughtfully chosen so as to have one man, and at least three women representing all regions of Africa.
The organizing committee was split into five sub-committees for international national, scientific, early/mid career and for the Women in Global Health representation. With such thoughtful and sensitive planning, the conference was bound to be a tremendous success, and that’s exactly what it was- a congregation designed to lift the spirits of women to lift the momentum behind the push for good global health. Conferences as we know are a herculean task, but it seemed like UGHE (the University of Global Health Equity) took it to another league altogether and has set a very tall benchmark for India.
The program was elaborate and included sessions on lessons from African history about leadership and the health sector, cultural barriers to women’s health, gender discrimination and gender pay gaps, gender based violence and workplace harassment, career growth of women in global health, women with disabilities, cancer, global surgery, research on minorities, women in conflict situations, innovations in health, family-career integration, and so much more. Below, I have focused on the sessions that I participated in, and elaborate on my key takeaways from the conference.
The conference began with Dr Paul Farmer, Partners in Health, who said, “Everyone I work with is a Woman Leader in Global Health- I get it 24/7”. He spoke about how Rwanda moved on from “Despair to Hope” and is now a champion in healthcare and education, not just for the African continent, but for the whole world.
Her Royal Highness, Dina Mired, from Jordan, was electric and mentioned that while potential and talent were universal, opportunities are not – she spoke about how women have always been the tireless custodians of health since time immemorial. Women are nurturers, empathizers, committed, practical, combine management skills with great emotional intelligence, and therefore are perfect to lead. Despite women being born innately powerful, the society and the systems have held them back from taking on leadership positions resulting in present statistics that scream of gender bias and unintelligent thinking.
The conference was unique in that it focused on accessibility, had a sign language interpreter, had childcare and a prayer room. The program alternated between plenaries and parallel sessions all day, so there was no monotony. There was ample time for networking and there were handicraft stalls for the compulsive shoppers. The venue, Kigali Convention Centre left all the attendees impressed by its thoughtful spaces and creative corners.
The Hamwe Art Festival and the She Matters concert were also occurring concurrently and delegates received invites to both events. The recent entry of arts, music, and design into global health was very evident at WLGH 2019. In fact there was a whole session on the role of art in furthering global health – fascinating for some of us.
There was a deliberate, strong focus on young and emerging women in global health. The two breakfast sessions on mentorship and grant proposal building were simply awesome and led by some vibrant women leaders who spilled out some much needed pointers and secrets to being successful when embarking on a global health career path. The lightening sessions were simply fabulous with 18 women from all over Africa, setting the stage on fire as they spoke about their work with passion and courage.
I particularly loved the session on work-family balance. Apparently the terminology in use now is work-family integration – women should be able to do everything as opposed to having to choose one thing over another. Of course to enable her to integrate well, a woman needs support from her surrounding environment. As someone who juggles two jobs, an eight year old and a very busy home with four generations, this resonated with me deeply.
“You can have a sexual harassment policy, but if you don’t train the staff on how it works and the consequences around it, then it won’t be effective”, reminded Sarah Hawkes (from Global Health 50/50) us. There were sessions on digital progress in global health and the value it has added to make rapid strides. There was a whole session on chronic diseases with a particular focus on cancer.
Dr Folake Olayinka was the mentor at our table at the breakfast session on mentoring and she was instantly a hit among the mentees. As she shared her story in Nigeria and the struggles she faced as she rose to become a senior health director, the mentees were awestruck at her innovative solutions to overcome them. She also spoke about how her work took a toll on her family and how with time and better communication, they overcame the issues and are now able with deal with the work-home balance better.
Patricia Garcia, the former Health Minister of Peru, and a personal champion of mine, spoke about the need to push governments in the South to invest in research, and not just bank on international funding for research. She inspired women in the room to “Fly high, for eagles don’t come after flies”. She encouraged women to have courage, take chances and be prepared. She was amazing and received thunderous applause as she spoke about her own journey in global health. “I have been impacted by mentorship and I believe that our students and mentees are our legacy in academia”, she concluded.
Camara Jones, the President of The American Public Health Association, explained equity as a process of assurance of the conditions for optimal health for all people. She elaborated about the valuing all individuals and people equally, recognizing and rectifying historical injustices, and eliminating health disparities or differences in outcomes as the path to achieving equity in health. She insisted that care giving, collaboration and deep listening have to be central to what we do, if we care about meaningful outcomes.
Joia Mukherjee, the Chief Medical Officer of Partners in Health was on fire as she said “the way to change the system is not to put women at the top of a patriarchal ladder, but to break the ladder itself”. She spoke at length about how the lived experience of women should inform ethics, as we design to reduce inequities in health education. It is not about “fixing” women, it’s about giving them skills and changing the environment.
Sharon Lamerto, reiterated the significance of women enabling each other – “if each of us can makes strides between these annual conferences and focus on not just being excited about the first, but by being excited about enabling the second and the third”, that should be very worthwhile.
Stanford University (with support from the Gates Foundation ) announced the launch of the Women Lift Health Movement and how “Women Leaders in Global Health” is now transformed into “Women Lift Health”. With a focus on engaging and connecting more women and men to share challenges and solutions, the movement seeks to connect regions more than ever before to push women to become change agents to lift the health of their communities.
The conference came to a fabulous close with the Honorable Minister of Health, Rwanda, Diane Gashumba, who spoke about the need for a consistent effort to amplify the voices of women and girls and leverage positions as leaders to speak for colleagues whose voices cannot be heard.
Focus on disability
For me personally, this conference will remain a landmark milestone. For the first time, a global health conference had organized a whole panel on disability, with a focus on improving access for services for young women with disabilities – the focus of my work back in the Indian Himalayas. They spoke about disability, loud and clear and at the very beginning – not at the end, not as an afterthought. There were brave role models sharing their stories, their challenges and how they transformed their limitations into strengths and today stand tall in their fields, improving lives of many others like them.
And why is this important?
Because People with Disabilities are the single largest minority group in the world – excluding them will get us nowhere near the SDGs and UHC will remain a far dream. Women with disabilities are less likely to go to school, more likely to be beaten, harassed and raped – increased vulnerabilities lead to adverse health outcomes – all compounded by less access to services, attitudinal barriers and unaffordable, poor quality services, if at all.
If this is not a global health crisis, then what is?
Countries that don’t notice children with developmental disabilities are less likely to be aware of the risk of acquired disability too. More and more children who could thrive will become disabled due to neglect, inadequate nutrition, poor vaccine compliance, and increased susceptibility to infections and other childhood diseases. All of this could mean that, with ‘business as usual’, large numbers of people are never going to reach their full potential. Developing countries need their citizens to be at peak health and maximum cognitive capacity- how else can they prosper?
This conference has addressed this issue and the momentum should not be lost. The next conference and the time between these conferences should focus on taking this agenda forward and make disability a vital theme in their work priorities.
WLGH 2020 is coming to India and I cannot wait to be part of it. I hope to continue the talk about disability, particularly of disability in women. As I fly back from the hills to the mountains, I can only feel optimism, hope and strength about my future as a woman leader in global health. I feel warm in my heart and brave in my head to take on what tomorrow brings!