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When women lead: shifting mindsets and driving social change in an era of challenge

By: Roopa Dhatt and Lois Quam

One of humanity’s most admirable qualities is its capacity to drive social change. Many successful social movements have risen from the energy and passion of community leaders. Often these movements were born out of critical inflection points in history – those times when “staying the course” simply didn’t reflect the values and norms of our times.

When it comes to movements led by women, effective leaders have embraced the perspective that there are no barriers to achieving their goals. These women leaders and pioneers often had to shift their mindsets – from holding onto limiting beliefs perpetuated in their societies to viewing themselves and their movements as resourceful and resilient enough to change society. This meant women had to stand their ground and demand the respect they deserve. They had to persist.

Today, in the era of COVID-19, we are seeing women leaders continue to adopt this mindset. They are exhibiting incredible resilience, which includes being collaborative, emphatic, constructive, while being decisive in navigating an unprecedented global challenge. Many of these women are expert problem-solvers. They are daily innovators as they seek to meet the needs of their families and communities in the midst of ever shifting challenges. They have acted quickly and decisively. For instance, New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern has been praised for quickly limiting the spread of COVID-19. She is not alone. Many countries with female leadership have acted decisively, flattening the curve.

When empowered, women are also effective mobilizers. They encourage their neighbors to embrace healthier behaviors and mobilize them to demand essential services like family planning. This is especially important during the pandemic since women are being hit harder by the socio-economic impacts of COVID-19. In fact, UNFPA forecasts that globally more than 47 million women could lose access to contraception, leading to 7 million unintended pregnancies in the coming months. Women are important messengers to promote risk communication and strengthen community engagement to address these new challenges to accessing health services.

Although we know how lucrative investments in women are for health, development, peace, security, and our environment, only 1% of gender equality funding goes to women’s organizations and feminist groups. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbates an already challenging situation for funding women’s movements and organizations in communities. As such, it is important to be innovative with how we target resources, especially now. We need to fuel initiatives with proven results – and defer to community knowledge so that our responses are not ‘one size fits all.’ We need to learn from those we work beside to develop solutions that are most impactful.

In this spirit, Pathfinder International and Women in Global Health (WGH) are entering into a partnership to establish or grow WGH chapters in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Niger, Nigeria, and Pakistan. WGH is a global movement with more than 26,000 supporters across 90 countries that continues to expand its reach. This partnership will support a global team that works with a network of WGH chapters in every region of the world to challenge power and privilege for gender equity in health.

Over the past 63 years, deeply rooted community partnerships have allowed Pathfinder’s programs to empower millions of women and girls to have autonomy on their sexual and reproductive health decisions, and to reach their full potentials as leaders, innovators, and change-makers. WGH will draw on the breadth of Pathfinder’s experience working with community leaders and local partners to build WGH capacity and to ensure a gender-equitable foundation for health systems. This includes mobilizing a diverse group of emerging women leaders, advocating to existing global health leaders to commit to transform their own institutions, and holding these leaders to account for their promises.

Several WGH chapters, such as WGH Pakistan and WGH Nigeria, have already begun the process of mobilizing, with multi stakeholder, inter-generational chapter leadership that aims to reflect the local health landscape. As the chapter leads are volunteers, the partnership with Pathfinder will provide critical support in the form of office space and staff time, which will increase capacity to scale and carry out activities that bring the reality in these countries to global policy and decision-making.

In this time of unprecedented challenge, we must not lose sight of our collective goal of a fair and equitable world. Our partnership will encourage mindset shifts to fuel more gender-responsive health systems and a women’s empowerment movement capable of moving us from vision to action.

In case you missed it, listen to a webinar led by Pathfinder and WGH on elevating women’s leadership in response to COVID-19! (Password: 6v#^7@5@)