On 18 July 2016, the Wilson Center Maternal Health Initiative convened this dialogue, in partnership with the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

The once-every-three-years Women Deliver conference has become a major coalescing force for various global health and development efforts aimed at women and girls. “We operate at a global level, influencing the agenda” by focusing on the “four Cs”: convening, communicating, capacity-building, and catalyzing, said Susan Papp, director of policy and advocacy for Women Deliver.

Papp was joined by experts at the Wilson Center on July 18 to discuss the takeaways for the health, rights, and wellbeing of women and girls from this spring’s conference in Copenhagen, the largest yet. Nearly 6,000 people from 169 countries attended, said Papp. “We had more than 2,500 organizations represented and…81 percent of the participants had never been to a Women Deliver conference before.”

Copenhagen was the first Women Deliver for Alix Bacon, president of the Midwives Association of British Columbia. “I went in a bit skeptical, and I came home a changed woman and a believer,” she said. “My skepticism was, will all of this hullabaloo, and expense, and glamour change into action? Will the dialogue continue? And the evidence is here with all of you in the room today that yes, the dialogue will continue and yes, we are moving forward with solutions.”

Delivering Solutions

“If I reflect on Women Deliver, I would say the word that sticks with me is intersectionality,” said Bacon. “It was a conference that honored the intersectionality of women’s identities, and the intersectionality of the different Sustainable Development Goals we’ve talked about, not just three [health] and five [gender equality], and the intersectionality of the various organizations and players that are going to see these goals become a reality.”

Dr. Mary Nambao, deputy director of mother health for the Ministry of Health in Zambia, said she took home the same message. She has plans to engage various line ministries in Zambia to emphasize the various ways they affect women and girls’ lives; for example, by bringing together the Ministry of Chiefs and Traditional Affairs with the Ministry of Gender to help end child marriage.

“We want to be able to facilitate discussions both at the regional and the country level”

Zambia is in the midst of efforts to reduce its maternal mortality ratio from 398 per 100,000 live births to 50 by 2030. “I know it is tough, but this is something we’ve agreed upon with the partners, stakeholders, and policymakers, we hope we can do it,” Nambao said. It will take collaboration between key players in order to take global solutions and apply them in a national context.

With a particular eye for solutions that could fit Zambia, Nambao praised one intervention in particular: menstrual pads that can be made by local women and girls. She said discussion about menstrual hygiene management is rare, so she was delighted to see several conference booths featuring ideas that may be able to work in Zambia. Nambao said she’d already contacted the Ministry of Education and Ministry of Home Affairs to begin the conversation on implementing them.

Women Deliver featured both “hard and fast innovation” and “process innovation,” said Papp. The inaugural Appy Hour highlighted new tools that provide accessible, real-time solutions for communities that can’t wait for (or access) the latest peer reviewed journal. The Social Enterprise Challenge, meanwhile, tackled process innovation by focusing on large-scale issues that need to be reworked from the ground up, like providing women with sustainable farming techniques to give them more economic power (the goal of Acacias for All based in Tunisia, a top 10 finalist in the challenge).

Papp said they are collecting lessons shared during the conference into a “solutions panorama” toolkit covering more than 100 interventions. “We want to be able to put [the solutions] all together so that it can be a resource for the global development and maternal health and global health communities.”

Building Connections

The conference also aimed to strengthen and create new networks between key players, both government and non-government. Copenhagen had a ministerial forum with 34 representatives from 32 countries, a parliamentary forum with 85 representatives from 54 countries, and a private sector pre-conference with large multi-national companies and small companies.

Bacon, who participates in a “twinning” program between Canada and South Sudan that builds midwifery capacity said the connections she made were invaluable. “It would be extremely difficult for me in any other context to connect with UNFPA, World Health Organization, Jhpiego, Amref…organizations who will be on the ground in the same place that I’m on the ground, but not necessarily talking to each other.”

These connections may prove to be important as violence reemerges in South Sudan. Bacon pointed out that funding gets diverted from health programs in conflict settings, it isn’t safe for midwifery students to go to school, and health providers can’t get to their patients. She praised the tools, connections, and dialogue on health in fragile settings provided by Women Deliver.

Looking to 2019

The Deliver for Good campaign is one way Women Deliver hopes to encourage collaboration in between conferences. “It’s a new communications and advocacy platform,” said Papp, that “applies a gender lens to the Sustainable Development Goals, and it goes well beyond SDGs three and five…to highlight the interlinkages of issues and the interlinkages of investment.” So far, they’ve had 150 organizations sign up, she said. “We are committed to continuing to provide that guidance…where we want to be able to facilitate discussions both at the regional and the country level.”

Youth engagement was a particular priority at Copenhagen, said Papp, in part with an eye towards accomplishing the Sustainable Development Goals. “Twenty percent of the participants were under the age of 30, many of which were supported by conference-funded scholarships.” Forty percent of Women Deliver’s operating budget goes toward scholarships, she continued, and “the largest scholarship recipients are under the age of 40.”

Bacon was one of the young leaders in attendance. She received a scholarship to attend the Young Midwifery Leaders Symposium beforehand with midwives from 31 other countries. The members of the symposium wrote a call to action that will be featured on The Lancet blog next month on the importance of continuing to address global midwifery challenges after the conference. The call to action addresses the common problems faced by both developing and developed countries; regulation, for example. Canada does “not have midwifery regulation in all providences and territories” and in South Sudan “there is no regulation whatsoever and no licensure,” Bacon said.

The conference doesn’t have formal program areas except for the Young Leaders Program because young people “speak truth to power better than anyone and they really can help reveal chronic issues that are underrepresented or unsaid,” Papp said.

“The conference was really meant to be a fueling station and a place for inspiration,” she said. They challenged the 6,000 participants to go back to their communities and “test [the solutions] so when you come back to Women Deliver 2019, we can see how things have gone.”

Written by Aimee Jakeman, edited by Schuyler Null.

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  • Alix Bacon
    President, Midwives Association of British Columbia
  • Roger-Mark De Souza
    Global Fellow and Advisor
    Former Director of Population, Environmental Security, and Resilience
  • Dr. Mary Nambao
    Deputy Director, Mother Health, Ministry of Health in Zambia
  • Susan Papp
    Director of Policy and Advocacy, Women Deliver