Interview with Kavita Ramdas, speaker at the Women Leaders in Global Health Conference

Kavita Ramdas is the past President of the Global Fund for Women and current Strategy Advisor for MADRE, a global women’s rights organization that works to support women on the front-lines of war and disaster. She is a leading advocate for gender justice and respected thought commentator on critical global and domestic challenges. Kavita founded and leads KNR Sisters, a consulting venture for social justice movements and philanthropy and is an accomplished public speaker.

We asked Kavita about her views on the take-home messages from this conference, gender equality in global health leadership, and her advice to attendees.

What are you most excited about for the Women Leaders in Global Health conference?

I am excited by the idea that we are talking about women leading in the field of Global Health and that we are bringing together leaders from so many different parts of the world. I am also excited to be at Stanford University where my colleagues like Michele Barry, Christine Min Wotipka, Tanya Luhrman, Deborah Rhode, Titi Liu and the Clayman Institute for Gender Research, among many others have made such an impact in the space of lifting women’s voice, agency and power to be visible and clear.

What actions and take away messages do you hope will come out of this conference?

I believe this a part of a larger feminist movement to reclaim our space as leaders and actors in various sectors and forums. Our work on global health has often been challenged by the entrenched sexism and double standards that other fields, from science and technology to medicine and education, have demonstrated and this conference does not shy away from challenging that status quo and demanding a #SheChange in the way we build the field of Global Health.

The key take-away messages will include:

  • #StandingUp for #WomensVoices in #GlobalHealth;

  • Pushing for a transformation of our sector to acknowledge and celebrate women’s contributions;

  • Defying the barriers that still prevent women from being represented at all levels of the sector – policy makers, researchers, economists, medical practitioners, anthropologists, social scientists, etc;

  • And seeing women’s leadership as key to pushing for a more integrated intersectional and nuanced understanding of Global Health within the context of a highly unequal and unfair world.

The buzz word surrounding the conference is “movement” - how do you see yourself engaging with the movement of Women Leaders in Global Health?

The reason we see this work as part of movement building is that it is not limited to our particular roles as researchers, doctors, policy makers, etc. – we see this connecting us to women’s rights organizations and leaders in all parts of the world, but especially those where women’s rights and access to health are under severe attack. Right now, that includes large parts of the United States as contraception, sex education, abortion are all being challenged by the current administration and conservative regressive forces who see women’s sexuality as something to be feared and contained – not celebrated and liberated. In other parts of the world women are at the forefront of pushing for better access to care, to nutrition, to contraception, to reproductive health care, to freedom from violence, coerced sex, extreme poverty and hunger.

In my work at MADRE, a women’s rights organization working with women’s groups on the front-lines of war, conflict and natural disaster, I see opportunities to lift up their achievements and struggles to push for legislative and legal advocacy for change in the laws regulating their lives, and to bring their wisdom and experience to bear on the struggles we women in the Global North and the US are facing today. It is time for the women of the Global South to lead us towards a better future – they have experience dealing with conflict, with dictators, with authoritarian regimes, they can teach us how to organize, mobilize and resist the efforts to shut down democratic space and to silence the voices of women. I am excited to have the chance to see women leaders of the Global South emerge as leaders for our #NewSisterhood #NewInternationalism #NewMovement. In my personal capacity as a philanthropic advisor, I also view this as a moment to be supporting and strengthening philanthropic efforts that celebrate and lift up women’s leadership.

Do you have any tips or advice you would give to conference attendees on how to make this a memorable experience?

  • Enjoy the beautiful campus - get outside for a walk at least once a day!

  • Talk to as many people you have never met before as you can!

  • Ask questions in the sessions and in the hallways – engage!

  • Really try to switch off your cell phone for at least one full session every day – see how being present can make all the difference!

  • Don’t be afraid to disagree – we are all united in our goal of a more just and fair and healthy world for women and all people, but we may have legitimately different strategies for how best to get there!

  • Share your thoughts on social media (after the meeting sessions, if you can!) or just in an email to colleagues and friends or with your family and let others know about this meeting!

During your many years as CEO of the Global Fund for Women, what solutions did you find for increased inclusion and diversity at decision-making tables? Or in general, in what ways can we as a global health community lobby for greater gender equality and diversity in leadership

During my time at the Global Fund for Women we realized that it could only be called Global if it was led by women from around the globe. To this day, GFW’s board is more than 50% women leaders from around the globe, not just US based sisters! Diversity means more than just race/ethnicity – it includes women of all ages, women with disabilities, women from different disciplines. It means challenging your own stereotypes – wealthy donors may come from the so called Global South and activists may come from the Global North. We are all givers and all receivers – we blur the lines of who gives and receives – that makes a difference. We don’t have to wait to be Melinda or Bill Gates to give to the causes we care about! Our 25,000 individual donors included little girls with their Bat Mitzvah checks and $1 million donors. All of it mattered and all of it was treated with equal respect and appreciation.

Leadership is not just being in important meetings, or on the front pages of the papers – many of the most impressive leaders I met during my years at GFW and now at MADRE are not well known names, but they have courage, conviction, desire to change their realities, passion for those who have no voice or who have been marginalized, a refusal to be “reasonable” or “well behaved”. They can be women of faith or atheists; they can be Queer or Straight; they can be Mothers or Single Women; they can be cis or transwomen; they can be from a big city or a tiny village. What matters about leaders is that they are determined to change the world – not just to even the playing field, but to question the game being played. Nothing less than a revolution!

As a global health community, we can realize that global health is deeply linked to issues of Inequality, power and poverty. We cannot pretend we can stay within the confines of medical discourse, when what makes people sick is being poor, being vulnerable to violence because of your sex, race, gender, religion; being a refugee or a trafficked person; being born into a poor family in a poor country or in a rich country. We must change and challenges those structures of injustice if we really want “well being” for all on the planet. Eight men cannot continue to own as much as the rest of the 50% of the world if we want better health. We need societies and structures and tax systems that value “well being” – we cannot continue to pay CEOs 345 times what workers make and assume that workers will have “good health”. We cannot countenance societies where there is no freedom for women and where violence against women is endemic and think that they can provide good healthcare. So we must push for an integrated and intersectional analysis of what causes “poor health” in the planet. We cannot continue to look away as the US spends more money on weapons and arms than all other countries combined and say that it has nothing to do with health. We cannot separate the health of the planet from the health of each one of us. So, our work in the GLOBAL HEALTH COMMUNITY is to struggle for these issues as CORE to the struggle for better health for all. We must push for more diverse voices, not just of women, but of the many marginalized voices that are excluded from the halls of power. If we can do that –we too will be LEADERS pushing for nothing less than a revolution.

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