Fueling the movement to invest in girls and women

by Rahim Kanani | rahimkanani | Rahim Kanani Media Group, Inc
Monday, 18 August 2014 14:08 GMT

* Any views expressed in this article are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With only 500 days left to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals, Women Deliver’s new CEO Katja Iversen spells out how to accelerate progress for girls and women, and where we go after 2015?

There are only 500 days left to achieve the UN Millennium Development Goals. How do we accelerate progress for girls and women, and where do we go after 2015? In an in-depth interview with Women Deliver’s new CEO, Katja Iversen, we discussed the founding, evolution and impact of the organization to date, her vision for the future, and much more.

Rahim Kanani: Before I get to your new role as CEO, let's talk about how Women Deliver has evolved over the years. How did it start, and what have been some of the milestone initiatives or efforts to date?

Katja Iversen: It all started with a really powerful message: Invest in Women – It pays. At the time, there was a recognition that there was a profound need to start talking about maternal and reproductive health differently, and to start doing things differently in order to not only preach to the choir, but to reach those people who could make change happen faster. When you think about who can do that – we all realized that we couldn’t just talk about health and rights, but that we had to start thinking about and communicate with the people who held the purse strings. We had to talk to the hearts and minds of the people who held the money!

This all happened in 2007 around the 20th anniversary of the Safe Motherhood Initiative, which was the first major global push to make maternal health a priority within programs, policies, and funding. Key people who worked on these issues, including Women Deliver’s Founder and President Jill Sheffield and myself when I was at UNFPA, recognized that we needed to refocus, and to look at girls and women not just as mothers, but as “deliverers” of so much more – from medicines, to education, to economic growth.

That’s why the first Women Deliver conference, which was held in 2007 in London and convened more than 1,200 people advocates, members of civil society, policymakers, researchers, and media took on the task of reframing the issue. We had the data to back-up the argument that we must not only invest in women because it’s the right thing to, but also because it is the economically sound thing to do. That messaging - and the deliberate strategy of bringing broad constituencies together to create consensus on what needed to be done - are key reasons why MDG5 and maternal health successfully got on the global agenda, and helped drive the community towards the successes that followed including the launch of the UN Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child initiative, the Muskoka Initiative launched at the 2010 G8, and more.

The Women Deliver conferences in 2010 in Washington, DC and in 2013 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia have continued to bring in new allies to the fight for sexual and reproductive health and rights. Our last conference brought together 4,500 people from 149 countries who rallied around girls’ and women’s issues from economic empowerment to environmental sustainability to education and made the links to sexual and reproductive health. Women Deliver’s conferences are the largest convenings to focus on the health and rights of girls and women in the last decade, and the next global conference in Copenhagen, Denmark on May 17-19, 2016 will allow all those who care about these issues to take stock and chart a path for the operationalization and implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals as they relate to girls and women.

Kanani: As the new chief executive, how are you thinking about the next phase of the organization?

Iversen: Now is an exciting time for Women Deliver. It is really fun to go to work!

As I came into Women Deliver, I had the incredible fortune to join at the same time that an independent evaluation was underway that assessed our work and its impact on the global reproductive and maternal health agenda. The results were great and humbling. We couldn’t be more proud of and inspired by the findings and the report, which has high praise for the work to date, and includes opportunities and challenges for the future. We have learned a lot from the evaluation, and I know that it will help shape our work in the years to come.

We are eager to begin expanding and deepening our programs, our impact and our reach that go way beyond the Women Deliver conferences. This means scaling up our Young Leaders program, doing more targeted thematic advocacy, engaging private sector partners more efficiently and effectively through our C-Exchange, and continuing to produce and use compelling, evidence-based advocacy materials and information to help spread and instill the message that investing in girls and women is the smart thing to do. 

But, of course, we will also be gearing up for our next Women Deliver conference, which as mentioned will take place in May 2016. To strengthen that - and to strengthen the advocacy in countries - we will be working with partners at the country level both before and after the conference. It is in developing countries where the situation has to change for girls and women and it is there the effect and effectiveness of the Post 2015 development framework and SDGs will be defined and felt.

So while we have to push to accelerate progress in these last 500 days to achieve the MDGs, we also must plan for the future and think about how to implement the new goals to make a real difference for girls and women.

Kanani: With 500 days left to achieve the MDGs, what kinds of solutions should we double-down on to accelerate progress on these issues?

Iversen: The good news is we have made remarkable strides toward improving the health and well-being of girls and women around the world in recent years. Thanks to tremendous advocacy efforts and unprecedented commitments from donor and developing countries, maternal deaths have been halved, millions more women have access to family planning, and more girls than ever before are in school.  

But our work is far from done. The way I see it, our greatest challenge is also our biggest opportunity – we must keep the momentum around girls’ and women’s health and rights alive. This is not the time to get tired, become jaded or complacent or to turn our back on girls and women. It is time to continue pushing and fighting and advocating to ensure that these issues remain at – and climb to – the top of policy agendas at every level. We must act now as we approach the 2015 Millennium Development Goal deadline, but also in the post-2015 world.  

We know that we cannot achieve the MDGs, or any development goals, if we do not invest in girls and women – their health, education, empowerment and rights. We know that family planning, for example, is one of the most cost-effective life-saving solutions, and that increasing access for girls to go school leads to improved health outcomes for her, her family, and her future children. We also know that we need to be serious about investing in young people. Their needs, choices and opportunities regarding health, education, and employment will define not only their own lives, but the present and the future for all and for the planet.

Just last month I had the privilege to meet 16 of the Women Deliver Young Leaders at a conference in South Africa. It is clear to me that the investment that Women Deliver has made in their knowledge, advocacy skills, and ability to access high-level opportunities is already reaping benefits. They are super inspiring as they stand up and fight for their rights and their needs – at global conferences and in projects in their communities. They are not just the future, they are very much the present and they can help accelerate action.

Each and every one of us has a pivotal role to play in continuing to deliver for girls and women, and in the next 500 days, we need everyone to commit to deliver and invest in their health, rights, and well-being.

Kanani: As you look beyond 500 days, what kinds of targets would you like to see integrated into the Post-2015 development agenda, known as the Sustainable Development Goals?

Iversen: You can't talk about the planet and sustainability without talking about people, and you can't talk about people without addressing rights and reproduction.

We have a great opportunity, right now, to reflect on progress made and ongoing challenges. MDG 5, the goal to improve maternal health and achieve universal access to reproductive health, is the most off-track of all the MDGs. This is unacceptable – and we cannot create a new development framework that doesn’t prioritize the health, rights and education of girls and women.

In the SDGs, we would want to see the following targets:

  • By 2030, end preventable maternal mortality and morbidity.
  • By 2030, achieve sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health information, education, services and commodities, particularly for adolescents and youth.
  • Achieve universal access to comprehensive sexuality education for all young people, in and out of school.
  • By 2030, eliminate all harmful practices, especially child, early and forced marriage and female genital mutilations.
  • By 2030, ensure the respect, promotion and protection of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, especially women and girls. 

I would also want to see specific targets that address the gender gap in accessing quality education at all levels, particularly secondary education, and targets that ensure equal access to economic opportunities. We also need more focus on young people in general, and on adolescent girls in particular – and not just targets that address unemployment. In order for young people to be productive members of society, they need healthcare, education, and the ability to exercise their basic human rights.

Without these targets - and without data to drive action and accountability - we cannot achieve an equitable and sustainable world. But – if we do prioritize girls and women and invest in them – then everybody wins.

Kanani: Where do you draw your inspiration from, and are you optimistic about the future?

Iversen: I’m never short on inspiration – I draw it from my past, including my own grandmother who worked hard and fiercely for girls’ and women’s reproductive rights in the 1930s in Denmark, where I am from. I draw it from my present – with dynamos like Jill Sheffield, Graca Machel, Nicholas Kristof, and Helen Mirren - and I am constantly learning and evolving to become a better advocate for girls and women around the world. And I draw it from the future – meeting Women Deliver Young Leaders like Yemurai Nyoni, from Zimbabwe, who is fighting to end child marriage in his country and Nargis Shirazi, from Uganda, who is sharing information and resources about sexual and reproductive health and rights to her peers. Nelson Mandela once said: "Whenever I am with young people, I feel like a recharged battery." When I get to spend time with the Young Leaders and hear about how they are overcoming challenges to make the world a better place, I am truly zapped with renewed energy, inspiration, and commitment.

Kanani: Finally, what are some of the leadership lessons you've learned along the way with regard to social change communications and advocacy?

Iversen: I’ve learned that no one can do it alone. Partnership is in my DNA, and it is in Women Deliver’s DNA. When we can come together and get many voices conveying the same message, working together for change – we are so much more powerful. That’s why we really work across issue areas, across sectors, and across borders to bring together people and ideas to make real and lasting change.

I’ve also learned to never believe anyone who says “it can’t be done.” A decade ago, no one thought maternal and reproductive health and family planning would ever be global priorities and, today, these issues are getting more attention and more resources than ever before.

I truly believe, that with collaboration as well as strong, multifaceted and strategic advocacy, anything is possible – the trick is meeting people where they are. You have to understand and respect what makes people tick and, ultimately, what will make them care about your issues. It is about creating “win-wins” and partnerships. In the case of women’s health and rights, for example, some people are persuaded by moral arguments, others by economic- and development-focused evidence. Knowing your audience and developing as well as adjusting your messages can make all the difference.

Katja Iversen joined Women Deliver as Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in March 2014. Iversen, an internationally recognized expert on development and communications, has more than 20 years of experience working in NGOs, corporates and United Nation agencies. Previously, she held the position as Chief of Strategic Communication and Public Advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for communication on reproductive health and MDG 5 at UNFPA.