Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health: Dr. Joannie Bewa (Benin)

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By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

In July 2016, global leaders gathered for the second annual Safe Mothers and Newborns Leadership Workshop hosted by the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) in partnership with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and The Aga Kahn University and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The participants represented 26 countries from five continents.

Joannie Bewa

SMNLW participant Dr. Joannie Bewa is a medical doctor from Benin and Founder of the Young Beninese Leaders Association (YBLA). She is also a fellow of the US Government International Visitor Leadership Program and Secretary Clinton’s Women in Public Service Project as well as a semi-finalist of the “UN Special Envoy Youth of Courage Award.” Dr. Bewa was recognized as a champion for advancing sexual and reproductive health by Women Deliver in 2015 and is a member of the “Adolescent and Youth Constituency” of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (PMNCH). She played a pivotal role advocating for the health-related SDGs with the UNFPA Youth Panel in Benin and was featured on Melinda Gates’ list of six influential women on the topic of global access to contraception.

S: Tell me about yourself and the work that you do.

J: My name is Joannie Bewa and I’m from Benin in West Africa. I’m a medical doctor by training practicing in a hospital in Benin, and I’m also the Founder of the Young Beninese Leaders Association (YBLA). I founded YBLA in 2010 as a youth organization advocating for sexual and reproductive health. YBLA also provides capacity building programs on youth leadership and empowerment. One of our big projects is the “Red Ribbon Campaign” where we have 10,000 young people using strategies such as soccer, art, literature and social media to raise awareness about sexual and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. We also joined a national campaign advocating for free family planning methods for adolescents and youth in Benin. We have implemented a national campaign on girls’ empowerment and women’s entrepreneurship with the support of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Young African Women Leaders Grant program.

S: What is the biggest challenge in maternal and newborn health in your country?

J: While the maternal mortality ratio in Benin decreased from 576 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 335 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013, progress still needs to be made. The modern contraceptive prevalence rate is around 8% and the unmet need for family planning is 33%. We need increased attention to adolescent health—especially early pregnancies—from all stakeholders. A quarter of maternal deaths occur among adolescent populations, so we’re asking ourselves, “What did we miss in our planning?” Adolescent health has to become more than just a song to sing, but really reflected in our interventions. Now is the time to talk more about meaningful adolescent participation.

S: What kind of leader do you aspire to be?

J: Good leaders are team players. They have a clear vision of where they are, where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. They are also inclusive—when we talk about the SDGs versus the MDGs, we realize that inclusion was lacking in the past and a lot of inequities have increased in developed and developing countries. I would like to be a leader in public health and public service who is able to find concrete solutions to solve health and development issues in Benin, in Africa and around the world. I would like to improve billions of lives through innovative research and effective policies and interventions. I will continue learning, gaining experiences and dreaming big.

S: What would you like MHTF readers to know?

J: My take-home message from this workshop is that adolescent health and stillbirth need to be prioritized. Costing studies are really important, and documenting effective interventions for equitable, quality care matters. Meaningful adolescent and youth engagement in the planning, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and accountability processes is key. I also think we need meaningful private sector engagement in every area of development. We have seen many successful private sector alliances in public health. The private sector is making money, and when they understand the urgency of acting, you can have them on board. We need everyone. We cannot continue to work in silos if we want to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

Read the PMNCH Knowledge Summary about adolescent health for which Dr. Bewa served as a member of the “Adolescent and Youth Constituency”.

Read the first interview in the Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health series with Dr. Emmanuel Ugwa from Nigeria.

Check out Dr. Bewa’s summary of the Safe Mothers and Newborns Leadership Workshop on the PMNCH website.

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