Women Who Dare: Jill Sheffield Helps Make Maternal Health a Global Priority
This post is part of Pathfinder's "Women Who Dare" series in celebration of International Women's Day 2013.
Jill Sheffield is the founder and President of Women Deliver, an international advocacy organization dedicated to advancing political action around and investment in maternal health. Jill is a tireless advocate for women’s health who credits her time spent in a Kenyan maternity hospital as the inspiration for her work. Jill’s daring work has been a contributing factor to increased international attention to maternal mortality, an area of continued need given the stalled progress on lowering maternal mortality.
Prior to Women Deliver, Jill founded Family Care International, a nongovernmental organization dedicated to making pregnancy and childbirth safer for women around the world. Jill is also a board member for the Pangaea Global AIDS Foundation and has played a key role in several global conferences aimed at bettering the lives of women and girls.
Recently, Jill spoke with Pathfinder about the importance of maternal health, her inspirations, and why she’s okay with “living on a limb.”
Women were dying. There were virtually no family planning options available. The hospitals and maternity wards were crowded beyond belief, keeping the three doctors and untold number of midwives busy. What inspired you to dedicate your career to advocating for maternal health?
The time I spent living in Africa in the 1960s was definitely my inspiration—no question about it. I worked at a maternity hospital in poorest section of Nairobi and then traveled around to nine countries across the continent. I saw the same issues everywhere—north, south, east, west. Women were dying. There were virtually no family planning options available. The hospitals and maternity wards were crowded beyond belief, keeping the three doctors and untold number of midwives busy. But when family planning became available, women with children, with new babies, with and without their husbands waited in the blazing heat and sun, determined to be able to space and plan their families. It was so clear that if you can’t plan your family, you can’t plan your life. So many people depend on these women. And women have the right to make that choice.
What are you most proud of in your work?
I’m extremely proud of the tremendous response to Women Deliver. There was a huge need to respond to and I’m proud of place it has in the world because we’ve created momentum for maternal health. In 2007 at the first Women Deliver conference, we got the reproductive health, maternal health, and family planning communities to sit together and come up with key strategies. And now we have the larger community concerned about girls and women in the conversation and in the movement.
The true history is in the Safe Motherhood Initiative, where it all began. But it was after stepping out of that and launching Women Deliver where I had to dare. I’m proud that lives were saved. Lives were changed.
What changes have you seen for global maternal health?
Women Deliver reminded governments, the private sector, etc. that women deliver babies, and everything. And we dared to talk about it in the light of day, with data and evidence. We engaged people, the media, organizations—we demanded change.
There are times when I feel like I live out on a limb. And it seems like I can hear the saws most of the time. But that’s ok.In your time working with women—from the early days in Kenya to now—was there ever a moment where you thought, "Wow, I’m really going out on a limb here?"
Yes, all the time! There are times when I feel like I live out on a limb. And it seems like I can hear the saws most of the time. But that’s ok. And people keep saying, “Why are you taking this up?And why now?” There are unoccupied niches, and one of those was maternal mortality plus family planning. But it’s work that needs to be done. I’ve been very fortunate as most of the time I’ve been out on limbs, I’ve had great encouragement.
Was there ever a time when you saw another woman daring to challenge, change, or take on something and it inspired you?
Yes, I’ve been very inspired by many women who dare, and men too. Margaret Sanger and Eleanor Roosevelt are the big two for me. But daring people are why I started reading biographies. I wanted to know how they organized their lives. Wanted to know what it took to dare and what made them dare.
The common thread I found is that you can only take those chances when it’s something you believe passionately. You can find so many ways to cope with adversity and the challenges you face when you’re committed to something. No secret strategies. No silver bullets. It’s all about your commitment and your passion.
If you had one piece of advice for those who want to dare to make a difference for women, what would it be?
The one thing I’ve been reminded of time and time again is that it’s okay to make mistakes, but you have to take risks. You just have to make sure you learn and don’t make the same mistake twice. This piece of advice gives you permission to go on, even if things aren’t perfect.
And do what you know is the right thing. Saving lives of women and girls is always the right thing.
This post is part of Pathfinder's "Women Who Dare" series in celebration of International Women's Day 2013. Read more stories of daring women and learn how you can take action at www.pathfinder.org/WomenDare.