From dusty rooms to Davos: The long road to equality in health and rights for girls and women

Katja Iversen, CEO of Women Deliver, speaks to us about progress in girls’ and women’s health and rights, the threat of siloed thinking and the unstoppable power of young people.

 


By Tove Iren Spissøy Gerhardsen |  Published 8 March 2018


“Do you prefer this to be in English or Danish?" asks Katja Iversen, President and CEO of the leading women’s health and rights global advocacy organisation. "When I speak about work, I prefer English.”

We’ve been trying to set up the meeting on and off for the better part of a month. It hasn’t been the six- hour time difference between Copenhagen and New York that has been the challenge; it’s catching Katja in any one time zone that makes it tricky. As president and CEO of Women Deliver, she is rarely in one place for long.

On the day when I am lucky to pick her brain on her favourite topic via a noisy Skype connection, Katja is only in the office to ‘download’ before heading out on her next trip.  She has just returned from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and before that she was in Lenkisem, Kenya with Amref Health Africa and the New York Times (more on this later).

So enthusiastic is Katja that within seconds I realise that it has been worth the six-week wait. Her passion and optimism for girls’ and women’s health, rights and equality is contagious.

“The women I meet around the world are powerhouses. When you see some of the conditions they live under, and you see that they get up in the morning, they get dressed, no matter what odds are stacked against them, they take care of their children, they make a better future for themselves and their children – that is an eternal inspiration.  Even in the hardest circumstances, whether in emergencies, in refugee camps or in slums, women just fight,” explains Katja.

 

No room for complacency

Since 2007, Women Deliver has been helping to take the fight of these women to all levels of civil society, promoting the case for investing in girls and women. On the heels of Davos, Katja gives an example of just how far things have progressed.

“It has been very interesting to see, since I started in this field - and that is many years ago - maternal health and gender equality were something that was discussed in rooms with dusty floors, where there were only women in the room. Now, in Davos, Prime Minister Trudeau from Canada spent two thirds of his speech talking about gender equality and about putting women first, because it is an economic and political imperative.  It is also imperative if we want healthy people and a healthy planet,” says Katja.

But while progress over the past decade has been good, it doesn’t mean that everything is great. Katja also sees conservative winds pushing hard in many places around the world, not least on women’s health. Having been in the game for a while, she is quick to point out that progress can swiftly be undone unless someone keeps up the fight for momentum.

“There is no leaning back or taking anything for granted. We are in a very important moment where we see big forces moving in the right direction and getting more focused on women’s health and rights and on equality. But we also see others going back to the dark ages,” says Katja.

 

Katja Iversen speaking at the Woemn Deliver conference, CEO, Women Deliver

the next Women Deliver conference will be held in Vancouver, Canada in 2019

“We need to integrate”

It is not difficult to see some of the warning signs that these dark ages could return. Frequent news stories are a constant reminder of the politics and policy that still seek to undermine gender equality, women’s rights and - closest to Katja’s heart - girls’ and women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights. But this is not the only threat that can lead to what she refers to as ‘the dark ages’. The biggest threat to progress is much more technical in nature.

“We see that for the longest time people involved in women’s issues have been working in silos. Over here they work on education. Over there they work on this specialty of health. Here they work on economic empowerment. There they work on political empowerment. We really need to integrate!” urges Katja.

Breaking down silos is one of Katja’s specialties. Katja tells me that Women Deliver has ‘partnerships’ in their DNA, programming their actions to always look for who they can work with and which sectors they can unite.

“If we only treat health as health, we never solve the issue or get a healthier population. There are so many other things playing into the solution - education, economics and environment. We really try to convene these different groups and break down the silos to work together,” says Katja.

Citing one example, Katja highlights a 2017 World Health Assembly debate that Women Deliver helped organise. They encouraged leaders from the non-communicable disease (NCD) community and maternal, new-born and child health community to sit together on a big stage and talk.

“The outcome is still yielding results today,” says Katja, but is quick to add that there is definitely still work to be done, especially in terms of implementing the agreements on the ground. “It is not just a health issue. It’s a cross-sector issue. There is the lack of knowledge, a lack of collaboration, and then there also is a lack of funding. But the biggest missing element is collaboration and seeing things more holistically.”

 

The power of youth

As Katja continues to push for progress, she practices what she preaches; enlisting an army of youth ambassadors, currently more than 300 strong, to educate, advocate and catalyse action.

“I always love to work with young people because they defy expectations and won’t take ‘no’ for an answer,” says Katja. “They make me very optimistic about the future, because they are doing it, and not just for themselves. Seeing that is just tremendous. It is really a force of nature, and a force for good.”

I am suddenly aware that my time with Katja is running out as she needs to get back to her ‘downloading’. I want to get in one more question about progress – which issues do we need to press for more? But before I can ask, Katja answers the question herself by enthusiastically taking me back to her trip to Lenkisem, Kenya. Together with Amref Health Africa, Katja attended an ‘Alternative Rites of Passage’ ceremony – created by a young woman named Nice Nailantei Leng’ete to replace the harmful traditional practice of female genital mutilation.

“When this woman was 13 they wanted to cut her, but she ran away. She came back to her granddad who was part of the elders counsel and convinced him, and them, that the cutting wasn’t okay,” says Katja. “She has since become the leading advocacy voice in the community and at a national level to replace female genital mutilation with alternative rites of passage. She has made sure that more than 15,000 girls in that area have not been cut by having instituted these different rites of passage.”

It comes as no surprise when Katja tells me that Nice Nailantei Leng’ete is now part of the Women Deliver Young Leaders group. With women and girls like Nice pressing - and fighting - for progress with the backing of the international community and leaders like Katja, I share Katja’s optimism on the future of girls’ and women’s health and rights. And when better to pause and reflect on this than the 8 March – International Women’s Day?

 

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