I remember fondly a moment from my early career. I worked for the World Wildlife Fund, and Mingma Sherpa, my colleague and a greatly respected leader of the conservation movement in Nepal, issued me a challenge.
He said, “Given how much we can see that human health, gender, and conservation of nature are integrally linked in the Eastern Himalayas, we need a manual for the conservation sector, so that others around the world can also learn.”
Mingma, born in a small mountain village under the shadow of Mount Everest, passed away tragically in a helicopter accident in 2006. Two years following Mingma’s death, Judy Oglethorpe, Cheryl Margoluis, and I carried forward his vision at the World Wildlife Fund. We co-authored the first manual for the conservation sector on how to integrate family planning and health into conservation projects.
As I attended the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference last week and listened to my fellow leaders talk about how joining different sectors is key to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and gender equity in health and beyond, I reflected on how far we have come since the manual was published in 2008.
In the opening session, Dr. Soumya Swaminathan, Deputy Director for Programs at the World Health Organization, said that it is “multi-sectoral actions that are really going to make the difference” in improving gender equity and achieving the SDGs. “Women and girls are at the center of all of this.”
Later in the day, Professor Peter Piot, Director of the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, also spoke about how to achieve gender equity in health: “Whatever sectors it will require, we must bring them in!”
Population-health-environment programs, my “base camp”
Since 2008, when our manual was published, Judy, Cheryl, and I have continued to provide technical leadership to multisector programs that meld family planning and health into conservation projects. To do this, I left the World Wildlife Fund and joined Pathfinder International so that I could explore global health and environment linkages from the perspective of each sector and refine my skills in fostering collaboration.
Today, I pull out new ways of achieving gender equity from a nexus of complex conservation, climate, environment, reproductive health, and gender issues. This nexus is population-health-environment (PHE). PHE is the base camp of a mountain where my journey has taken me so far, and the place from which it is possible to inspire collaborators to plan and move ahead towards the summit.
My PHE colleagues and I address some of the most pressing issues affecting rural, largely impoverished, and vulnerable populations, including: the effects of climate change, food security, nutrition, livelihoods, sexual and reproductive health and rights, as well as gender inequities. I am a part of something that gives women the opportunity to—in many cases for the first time—take a leadership role in management of natural resources.
The positive impacts
One of Pathfinder’s largest PHE projects—Health of the People and Environment in the Lake Victoria Basin (HoPE-LVB)—was recently evaluated. The evaluation of HoPE-LVB found that since inception in 2011, the project has had numerous positive impacts:
- Increased demand for and uptake of sexual and reproductive health services
- Favorable changes in household gender dynamics
- Adoption of sustainable fishing practices
- Increased use of safe water, sanitation, and hygiene practices
- Increased food security
- Reduced deforestation
- Income generation through eco-friendly livelihood activities
Positive results have encouraged the adoption of policies in Kenya, Uganda, and regionally in East Africa that are supportive of PHE, and Pathfinder is starting to see similar impacts of its PHE work in Tanzania, South Africa, and Niger. These results humble me. I am part of a process that is remarkable and good.
PHE—unleashing the power of women and girls
As I attended the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference last week, inspired by the energy towards collective action, I listened carefully. I also shared our experiences in PHE that continue to affirm to me that the integrated PHE approach is suited to achieve the SDGs and ensure that the human rights of women and their families are at the center of development, unleashing the power of women and girls.
Implementing programs that advance the lives of women and girls in a more holistic way will allow us to stand by their sides as they, in turn, improve the lives of their families and their communities.
Mingma Sherpa knew this. I remain dedicated to carrying forward his vision, and fulfilling Pathfinder’s mission to help communities—women, girls, men and boys—thrive.