Heroines of Health - Sharing the Untold Story of Super-Women at the Frontlines of Global Health

I had an interesting encounter this week at the 71st World Health Assembly (WHA). A man asked a woman to get coffee. The woman – a senior global health professional with an intergovernmental organization – mistaken for a waitress. The most unfortunate thing? He did not even realize his mistake. There was no apology. Not from him nor the other two men that accompanied him. Yet, this was not a singular incident. Many women in global health have had similar stories to share. Despite women making up 70% of the global health-workforce, they are often rendered invisible by gender norms, and unconscious biases. So much so, that we often forget that there are many amazing women at the frontlines of global health – overcoming steep challenges to make an impact in global health. Those stories are often left untold. According to Roopa Dhatt, the founder and Executive Director of Women in Global Health, “It is time we changed the narrative. Women are not victims, they are the change agents for UHC and essential to achieving health for all”. Women in Global Health is on a mission to do exactly that – change the narrative.

At this year’s World Health Assembly, Women in Global Health together with GE Healthcare, honored nine such “Heroines of Health”, by sharing their narratives and stories with the world. These Heroines of Health include trailblazers such as, Yemen’s Dr. Najla Al-Sonboli – a pediatrician who is working tirelessly in the face of war with limited resources to save lives. Despite the ongoing war and a hospital in-line of fire, Dr. Najla continues to lead by example, forgoing her opportunity to leave the country, and instead staying on to save lives and help people. These heroines are change agents such as, Anne Kithuia – who has championed for gender equity in capacity building and workforce, and is currently working in South Sudan for scaling up HIV services. These heroines include innovators such as Canada’s Audra Renyi who left Wall Street to become a social entrepreneur and founder of EarAccess, which is disrupting the hearing aid industry to provide access to quality and affordable hearing aids. While Rose Leke, Sabina Rashid, and Malabika Sarkar are role-models who are building the next generation of women leaders; Christine Mataza is a tireless advocate for the rights of patients and communities to get access to health services. Margaret Nakanjakko’s personal painful experience with teen pregnancy inspired her to became a community leader and ‘empower’ young girls and adolescents in Uganda. Meanwhile in Ireland, Claire Cahill used her advocacy efforts changed policy for Scoliosis treatment for all children in the country. These heroines are educators, nurses, doctors, leaders, change-makers, and trailblazers – their stories a testament to women’s resilience, and impactful leadership in global health.

In the words of WHO DG, Dr. Tedros’s words from the Heroines of Health gala, “gender equality s not just for the sake of women, but for the same of all of us”. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it did take collective effort. One way to change the deeply ingrained biases is to celebrate and recognize women who are leading global health. As WomenDeliver’s Katja Iversen said best, these stories will hopefully “inspire women to claim their power of change” – change of narratives, change towards gender equality, and change towards end of biases. My hope is that next time a man sees a woman standing by the bar at a major global health event, he will assume her a “Heroine of Health” first.

Sulzhan Bali, PhD, MS-GH,* (@sulzhan) is an independent public health and international development consultant, and a woman in global health.

*The views in this article are authors’ alone and do not represent the views of the organizations for or with whom they work.

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