Pan-African Women in Health (PAWH): Helping Women to Grow and Thrive

As a major effort to support African women working in the health sector, the Pan-African Women in Health (PAWH) working group convened for its first in-person dialogue meeting in Johannesburg, South Africa on March 2, 2018. PAWH is led by the Public Health Institute’s Global Health Leaders (GHL) Fellow Belinda Ngongo as part of her Public-Private Competency Building Initiative in South Africa, and the working group receives advisory and organizational support from the Public Health Institute. In attendance were women and men from the private, public, and NGO sectors, representing 9 African countries overall. The dialogue meeting was centered around identifying challenges faced by African women in health; exploring opportunities for future engagement to advance women’s agenda in this sector; and by doing so, grooming the next generation of African female health leaders.

The keynote speaker for the meeting was Suraya Dawad, Director at the South African National Department of Health (NDOH) managing the US Presidents Emergency Fund for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) program. Suraya’s career in global health spans health systems research, policy, and most recently a managerial appointment to the National Planning Commission in the South Africa Office of the President. This role is aligned with her interest in addressing development issues in the South African context, and one of her most important responsibilities is to secure funding for the healthcare system in the country. Suraya’s success story is unique, however; and in her keynote address she highlighted the importance of education as an asset, instead of a barrier to industry entry, for South African girls and young women. Perhaps most importantly, she called women everywhere to “demand your space at the boardroom table” – an increasingly important call, given the reality that women continue to be underrepresented, especially African women.

Memorable and empowering speakers aside, participants were engaged by a multi-sector panel discussion facilitated by Belinda on the efforts of organizations to support women, as well as a story-sharing panel hosted by Gogontlejang Phaladi, Executive Director of the Gogontlejang Phaladi Pillar of Hope Project. In the latter session, several female leaders discussed their respective career journeys and shared challenges and opportunities they encountered along the way. Women in the workplace are often victimized and marginalized in different situations, and can be negatively mislabeled for possessing career ambition or a penchant for sharing opinions. Despite these challenges, the panel speakers unanimously voiced a hope to see their dreams as young women actualized for the next generation. Progress Lanre Oladimeji from Nigeria’s Population Council phrased the sentiment well: “Every woman deserves a life just like any other human, and every human should have the freedom to choose exactly how they want their lives and dreams to turn out.” At some point, all three keynote speakers had wished for access to mentorship and guidance from like-minded people, and recommended that PAWH position itself to serve women in this way by building a healthy community for women to support each other professionally and personally.

As a closing activity, Deloitte facilitated a group design thinking session around the key priorities that PAWH would like to pursue in order to overcome persisting challenges. Four themes emerged from the conversation, and some will be addressed in future programming:

  • Networking for impact (i.e. networking opportunities for young women)
  • Growth and development (i.e. mentoring opportunities)
  • Breaking gender norms (i.e. work-life balance, sexual harassment)
  • Lack of access to healthcare services

PAWH is well on its way to breaking the glass ceiling for women in health in Africa, and its future looks promising. Now, more than ever, African women’s perspectives need to be included, heard, and valued. Next steps for PAWH include establishing a mentorship platform for young women working in health; revisiting the challenges and proposed solutions from the design thinking workshop; and continually engaging with a smaller advisory group to support the working group’s agenda. The PAWH website will launch in the coming weeks and will be updated with information on future meetings and events – stay tuned!

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