Gender interacts with all kinds of inequalities in life across social class, race and ethnicity, economics and health. This is no less significant when considering the impact of gender within the global program to eliminate trachoma as a public health problem. In endemic communities, women are twice as likely to require surgery to treat trachomatous trichiasis, the late blinding stage of trachoma, than men. Health workers and experts, programme managers, researchers and community leaders often face gender related barriers to achieving equality in decision making and recognition. It seems notable then that this year’s theme to be centred on raising awareness, celebrating the achievements of women and rallying for change to help forge a more gender-equal world through a commitment to being #EachforEqual.
To mark International Women’s Day 2020, ICTC spoke with Dr Agatha Aboe, Dr. Martha Saboya and Tigist Astale who are challenging gender stereotypes and making significant individual impacts to global elimination progress.
Dr Agatha Aboe, Global Trachoma Program Advisor, Sightsavers
Dr Agatha Aboe has been working with Sightsavers since 2010. A doctor by profession with a specialisation in ophthalmology, Agatha has had a passion for eye health since she was young. Agatha’s recognised leadership in the Ghana National Trachoma Programme contributed to Ghana officially eliminating trachoma as a public health problem in 2018, becoming the first country in Sub-Saharan Africa and the Commonwealth Nation of States to do so. She now shares what she learned through the process of Ghana’s elimination to help other national trachoma programmes and women working within health programmes.
What does it mean to be a woman in the part of the world and society that you live in?
Agatha: The experiences of a woman from my part of the world come in different flavours. As a wife, it means that I am expected to put my husband’s needs ahead of mine; that his welfare automatically takes precedence over mine as the head of the home. And this is unfortunately still reflected in the laws of my country. Fortunately for me personally, I have a very understanding husband who does not go with this kind of view. He supports me and treats me well. Women who are not as fortunate as I am face many challenges in trying to please their husbands above their own needs. Some suffer health issues; some are not able to rise on the corporate ladder and others end up quitting their jobs.
As a mother, it means having to take care of my family. Rise up early to meet their needs and go to bed late still trying to meet the needs of my children. However, there is some joy which comes with being a mother. It means to be celebrated by society twice in a year: on my birthday and on Mother’s Day. As a career woman, my credentials are often ignored or questioned by people usually of far lesser competence. For example, when I introduce myself as a doctor, I would get a response such as “ooh, you are a nurse.” I would have to say it again that I am not a nurse but a doctor before it is understood. It is important for our society to understand that women are equally able to take up difficult courses in education, excel in them and rise on the corporate ladder to take up the most senior positions in the workplace.
What taboos related to gender equality and equity still need to be broken?
Agatha: It is still a taboo for a woman to be highly accomplished yet unmarried and without children. The unnecessary emphasis society places on marriage as a prerequisite for women to be recognized for their accomplishments needs to be done away with. Gloria Steinem said, “Women are not going to be equal outside the home until men are equal in it” and there is no truer statement than this. The biggest taboo of all that needs to be broken is the concept that men are entitled to a woman’s body and personal space even more than the woman herself.
What role or impact would you like to play in relation to women’s rights and health today based on your experiences within the trachoma programme?
Agatha: I have sat in global meetings in which I was the only black and/or the only woman. I would like to see that change because representation matters. Flowing from this, it is one of my goals to help create opportunities for more women to take leadership roles and to take up space in the health sector. Liaising with the Ministry of Health in Ghana to make policies that will be driven at increasing female participation and representation in the health sector, and training and mentoring up-and-coming women who desire a career in the field would certainly see us inching towards a more inclusive health sector. I hope to inspire girls and young women in my country and across the globe with my own story; that if I could make it this far, then they can go even farther and break more barriers. I would like to help young women realise that they can be single or married, have children or not but they should certainly aspire to have the highest education they can pursue, take up challenging jobs and be national, regional or global experts in their field of interest and rise up to the topmost in the corporate ladder.
Within the trachoma programme, women should not be at the rear looking up to only men to solve an issue that affects women twice as much as men. Women should be at the fore front in the fight against trachoma at whatever level their knowledge, education and stage in their career; at the community level, district, national and global level.
Dr Martha Saboyá, Advisor on Neglected Infectious Disease Epidemiology, Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO)|World Health Organization, regional office for the Americas
Dr Martha Saboyá is a public health and epidemiology professional who specialises in communicable diseases and neglected tropical diseases. Martha is an Advisor on Neglected Infectious Diseases Epidemiology at PAHO, the WHO’s regional office for the Americas.
Why is women’s leadership important in work to eliminate trachoma in the Region of the Americas and what are the most important characteristics of their leadership?
Martha: I have had the opportunity of working with the regional trachoma program at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) for five years and I have seen women in several countries in the Region of the Americas, at the national and local level, leading efforts to bring integrated interventions to alleviate the suffering due to trachoma for the most in need - mainly children and women in rural remote communities. Their commitment, relentlessness, mindfulness, resiliency but overall their profound desire to make impactful change in neglected populations are the most common characteristics that make them leaders in public health. Women have the capacity to bring people together towards a common goal. Putting the health of the neglected people above their own interests and giving people the opportunity to be seen and heard, demonstrates what women can do in difficult circumstances.
What stereotypes have you faced and what are the themes that still need greater awareness to achieve gender equality?
Martha: Although nowadays there are more women leaders in the public health arena, there are still some stereotypes that prevent women from fully exercising their leadership capacities. Too many people still believe that women are emotionally malleable or that women can´t handle high-level positions because we are not strong enough to do it or that women are always “juniors” no matter how well-trained and how much experience and capabilities we have. However, emotional intelligence, for example, is a characteristic that makes women great leaders because we have the capacity to be mindful and aware of several aspects of human behaviours. Gender equality is not a mere question of numbers, such as having 50% of senior positions split between men and women within organizations. We need to see women as equals no matter the area of work, the task or the position in society.
Who has inspired you through your career and what impact would you like to have on other women entering a career in public health?
Martha: I have been inspired by several women throughout my career. I have seen women walking for days in the middle of the jungle to bring public health interventions to indigenous communities that otherwise would have no access. I have seen young women who are medical doctors working in insecure areas to help migrant populations. I have seen women working in high-level positions in governmental and international organizations leading noble health causes. I have also seen highly qualified and well-trained specialized women doctors dedicate their professional lives to public health, rather than the private sector, because they want to make change at the population level. I want to lead by example and honor all the women I have met in my career, from whom I have learnt so much, and put my efforts to continue their legacy. I want to encourage women to take the lead and dream big because there are no limits when women commit.
Tigist Astale, Epidemiologist, The Carter Center Ethiopia.
Tigist supervises extensive field work in hard to reach locations all over the Amhara region of Ethiopia, which has a high burden of trachoma. Because of her commitment to gathering quality data, the trachoma control program continues to implement effective interventions to help reduce blindness in Amhara.
What challenges do women face in the research community in progressing careers and to leadership positions?
Tigist: I believe the main challenge comes from the recruitment process for research leadership positions. Organizations and managers often hesitate in hiring women for these positions because of wrong but widely accepted assumptions that there will be obstacles for women. It is understandable that a research position will require a lot of travel and spending time in the field for weeks and months for training, supervision, logistics, and management, but these things affect everyone - not just women.
How do we inspire more women to take up careers in research? What are the challenges that prevent more women from taking up a role in research?
Tigist: We could inspire more women to take up careers in research by NOT providing distracting suggestions and comments. Friends, colleagues, even hiring managers tend to make negative comments, such as “as a woman, are you sure you can take this position, there will be a lot of travel”. I was once asked this question in a job interview. Sometimes the comments are very exaggerated that the position may not always require such effort. We could just make women aware about the time and effort the position needs and highlight all possible ways to manage the role. Additionally, organizations and managers should focus on the required knowledge and skills, rather than the “assumed difficulties” of a research position and attaching it to a gender role. Allowing flexible working environments when there is a natural personal priority such as parenting could also inspire a lot of women with dedication and who are more focused on productivity and results.
What advice would you offer to women embarking on a career in research?
Tigist: If you have a passion for a research career, don’t entertain distracting suggestions from anyone. Take the opportunity, focus on developing your knowledge and skills and advance yourself to your aspired positions.