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.
Professor Clara Menéndez, one of the faculty leading the workshop, is a research professor at the Institute of Global Health at the University of Barcelona, and she was also one of the founders of the Manhica Health Research Center in Mozambique. She has spent most of her career studying how anemia, malaria and other infectious diseases affect mothers and infants. Having worked extensively in The Gambia, Tanzania and Mozambique, Professor Menéndez serves as a consultant for the World Health Organization on malaria control in children and pregnant women.
S: Tell me about yourself and the work that you do.
C: I’m the Director of the Maternal, Child and Reproductive Health Initiative at the Institute for Global Health at the University of Barcelona. I also coordinate activities at the Manhica Health Research Center in Mozambique. I enjoy thinking about innovative, affordable ways to improve the health of pregnant women through clinical research in countries where their lives are at the greatest risk.
S: What are the biggest challenges in maternal and newborn health?
C: The biggest problem is coordination. There is a lack of coordination between researchers and the stakeholders with political power who can make a difference. We have the scientific evidence necessary to improve maternal and newborn health—that’s not the problem. There have been efforts to coordinate better, especially under the Sustainable Development Goals, but there is much to be done.
S: Have you noticed a gap between research and practice in particular?
C: Yes, I see that gap every day. There’s a gap between the guidelines that are published by large organizations and ministries of health and what is actually done in the clinic. There are many reasons for that: Health system fragility and a lack of resources are two big ones. Many guidelines or policies are evidence-based and nicely written, but they’re not implemented effectively. There are so many recommendations that aren’t being followed on the ground. Sometimes health workers don’t know which recommendations to follow because different organizations have different guidelines.
S: What characteristics are important for good leadership?
C: We need leaders with a vision who think globally and long-term. Capacity for dialogue and team coordination are also important.
S: What would you like MHTF readers to know?
C: Giving birth is the most dangerous time in a woman’s life. Equity in maternal health is crucial—all women should have the same rights, resources and chances of surviving delivery. Access to services is very unequal in many countries, especially based on socioeconomic status, ethnicity and whether a woman lives in an urban or rural area. Every woman has a right to have a skilled birth attendant. The disparities between the wealthy and the poor are actually increasing in many countries in sub-Saharan Africa including Mozambique. Politicians must realize that this is not acceptable. Improving equity is especially challenging in countries with weak health systems and fewer resources, but that’s not an excuse: All countries should work towards creating equity.
Check out the other interviews in the Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health blog series.
Read another interview with Dr. Menéndez about malaria in pregnancy on the MHTF blog.
Learn more about the Safe Mothers and Newborns Leadership Workshop.