Around the Institute

Womens’ Health: The Unfinished Revolution

June 26, 2014  • Sisonke Msimang, New Voices Fellow

Betty King, Courtney E. Martin (moderator), Sisonke Msimang, Jane Otai discuss the women’s health revolution during the 2014 Aspen Ideas Festival Spotlight: Health series.

What revolution? How is the Aspen Ideas Festival going to address the fact that two hundred girls are missing in Nigeria, that women are infected with HIV at far higher rates than men in all age categories, and sexual violence hampers women around the world? 

Courtney Martin, author and director of the Solutions Journalism Network, kicked off the discussion at “Women’s Health: The Unfinished Revolution,” by noting that there has been loads of progress in improving women’s health, from increasing the numbers of women participating in clinical trials, to expanded access to reproductive health services and so on. She also pointed out that much of this progress has been linked to broader improvements in women’s equality.

While these advancements are not to be discounted, she decried the split between women’s power in the public sphere and their personal power. While policies and services now exist that didn’t 30 or 40 years ago, too many women are not accessing them because of the private ways in which inequality plays itself out.

Former Ambassador Betty King then regaled us with stories of advocating for women, from marching down New York’s Fifth Avenue in 1970 for the Equal Rights Amendment to negotiating the original Millennium Development Goals. Luckily for the rest of us, she then decided not to become President of the Universe because she wanted to let a few other people pioneer and be game-changers too.

Betty said a great many important things but two struck me as super-important, and not just smart and interesting. First, she reminded us that the only two Millennium Development goals that haven’t been achieved on the whole list of 15 are the ones that pertain specifically to women and reminded us that the unfinished business of women’s health is both a global and a domestic issue for Americans.

She also suggested (and everyone in the audience thoughtfully nodded their heads because she was right but also because shaking one’s head thoughtfully is what one does when one is at the Aspen Ideas Festival) that part of what stymies progress is culture. It’s difficult to make progress when violence against women is deeply ingrained in the psyche and conduct of a society. She also encouraged the many diverse forms of activism for gender equality which enriches rather than diminishes impact.

Jane Otai, a remarkable family planning expert working in the slums of Kibera in Nairobi and whom Melinda Gates credits with her conversion to ‘getting’ why family planning matters so much to development, pitched in with a few powerful examples of the work she has done to advance women’s health in Kenya. She pointed out that the women are worried about sexual violence because it affects their lives and their dignity, but also because so much of the violence they endure takes place in the context of carrying out domestic duties – fetching water, gathering firewood and so on.

I agreed and suggested that technical fixes (like the MDGs) are important but are not the only ways of addressing the unfinished business. I suggested that we have to move beyond telling stories about women’s health, that the complexity of the issues involves recognizing that women both love their partners but also sometimes feel coerced by them but that not all sexual relationships are framed by violence. Ok, I didn’t really say it that succinctly but I wish I had.

Sisonke Msimang is a writer and activist who advocates for the better use of money and power in Africa. She is senior program director in charge of policy development, advocacy, and communications for Sonke Gender Institute. Prior to that, Msimang was the southern Africa head of the Open Society Foundations, responsible for growing the portfolio of organizations working on democracy, governance, and extractive industries. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader, a Yale World Fellow, and an Aspen New Voices Fellow.