Every Woman and Child Counts

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By: Onikepe Oluwadamilola Owolabi, Young Champion of Maternal Health

This blog post was contributed by Onikepe Oluwadamilola Owolabi , one of the fifteen Young Champions of Maternal Health chosen by Ashoka and the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth. This is her final post about her experience as a Young Champion, and you can learn more about her, the other Young Champions, and the program here.

Retrospectively…August 2010

I packed my bags one day prior to my trip to India because it was terribly hard to believe I was leaving home and going to a country where I didn’t know anyone. While I felt excited at the thought of starting the Young Champions of Maternal Health Program and exploring my dreams, there was so much uncertainty about the next few months, what I would achieve, and the impact of doing this fellowship.

My foray into maternal health was a process. It was not a fire of passion suddenly ignited by one event, but one which was stoked and sustained by the circumstances of my life, the patients and mentors I have worked with, and the social problems I’ve always wanted to change. Thus, as my interests in public health have been refined, I have found that the population I feel called to work with the most are children and their mothers. The Young Champions of Maternal Health Program was a perfect fit for my goals at this period in my life. It allowed me to apply social entrepreneurship skills to the field of maternal health through a nine-month mentorship experience. It offered me the right mix of elements for my dream job and proved to be a great learning experience.

Fast track to May 2011

With nine months behind me, more knowledge and wisdom, and so many possibilities ahead of me, I can confidently say- I WOULD DO THIS ALL OVER AGAIN! More often than not, I feel that the past nine months have given to me much more than I have put into it (and I have sincerely given all of my heart).

Seeing the multidimensional problems of maternal health in a highly populated developing country and the interactions necessary to approach them, and working with SNEHA’s intelligent, passionate, and meticulous teams from all fields, has taught me myriad things. I’ve seen how public health systems are amenable to change by building relationships and capacity and how this requires immense patience. Indeed, I am convinced more than ever that it is imperative to work in partnership with these systems to meet the health needs of women who can least afford it in a sustainable fashion. I have come to understand firsthand how involving the community is vital to ensuring real changes in attitudes, cultures, and behavior which hinder people from making a decision to use the few services that actually are available. I also understand why the citizen sector must play an active role in changing maternal health, why the business skills of the corporate sector are needed to develop sustainable models, and why integrating our solutions into policy can help them to scale up faster and reach more people.

I have learned from my SNEHA experience the reality of building a project from the ground up, carrying out credible research, running an organization, managing people, raising funds, and reaching out to the people who need help the most (especially the rapidly expanding poor urban population).

As I leave Mumbai, after a fabulous farewell party where all my colleagues brought their babies to work to say goodbye to me, I’m excited to return home but very sad about leaving my family and friends here. While I do have things lined up for me to do immediately — some maternal health field research work at home, a godson to play with, and preparations for a global health masters in the fall — I look forward to taking the lessons from the past nine months and working with primary-level health systems and health professionals in my country to effectively address the structural deficiencies which are primarily responsible for maternal mortality and morbidity in Sub-Saharan Africa. I believe firmly that engaging younger health professionals in the maternal health movement is a great first step to take for Nigeria, and I look forward to taking the pieces of my learning, my professional training, and the networks I have built with other colleagues in this movement and translating them into a worldwide health systems where the life and well-being of “every woman and child counts.”