Africa: WomenLift Health Conference Aims to Break Down Barriers for Women in Global Leadership

Mabinti Centre is a social enterprise training centre for women recovering from obstetric fistula.
7 April 2024

Dar es Salaam, Tanzania — The vibrant city of Dar es Salaam in Tanzania becomes a focal point for a global revolution this weekend. An international global movement for women in health leadership converges here, not for a typical conference, but a gathering pulsating with purpose and a determination to dismantle barriers.

The world is at a critical juncture. This year's theme for WomenLift, "Reimagining Leadership: New Approaches to New Challenges," reflects this moment. The conference starts just after the Generation Equality midpoint evaluation, presenting a crucial opportunity to address these challenges through "Reimagining Leadership" - forging new approaches for a new era. The pandemic underscored the vital role of women in healthcare, highlighting the necessity for their inclusion in shaping global health responses.

The conference kicked off at the Julius Nyerere International Convention Centre, drawing over 1,000 attendees from 41 nations.

"Tanzania is making history with its first female president, Her Excellency Samia Suluhu Hassan," said Amie Batson, President of WomenLift Health. "Upon taking office, she joined the ranks of a very small group – only two other female heads of state in Africa at the time and just 15 worldwide. President Hassan's leadership is a powerful inspiration for millions of women and girls globally. Hosting this conference in Tanzania itself highlights the commitment of President Hassan and her government to promoting women's leadership. The distinguished leaders joining us today are a testament to the positive impact women can have in positions of power."

"Since 2017, this conference has been a platform promoting gender equality and women's leadership in global health," Batson said.

Despite ongoing efforts towards gender parity, the healthcare field remains plagued by a significant gap in women's leadership representation. Batson said the "underrepresentation" of women in senior health leadership positions despite comprising 75% of the global health workforce. Yet women hold only 25% of leadership roles, reflecting persistent gender bias and power imbalances. The reason behind this gender gap supports the need to address social and economic inequities affecting health outcomes through transformative changes.

"This limits our ability to address critical health challenges," she said.

Batson stresses the need for women's inclusion in decision-making for a diversity of perspectives and experiences, saying it is our "biggest challenge."

"We need both women and men at decision-making tables bringing a diversity of perspectives, experiences, and of course expertise. Understanding the challenges, designing the solutions, determining the policies, implementing action - that impact women, children, families, communities and entire nations need to be taken with equal participation and representation of women - fully half the population."

Baston also mentioned abundant evidence indicating that women leaders prioritize the health needs of children, women, and communities. This includes various aspects such as reproductive and maternity care, access to clean water and sanitation, and the establishment of robust health systems.

"When more women lead, they bring new ideas and creative solutions that enable communities, organizations, and entire countries to prosper," she said.

Batson acknowledged the changing nature of global challenges like pandemics and climate change. These issues require new leadership styles emphasizing collaboration, empathy, and authenticity.

"As these challenges change - the leadership to guide us through them also needs to change."

She also pointed out that leadership qualities often associated with women are being recognized as valuable leadership traits.

"Collaboration? Empathy? Authenticity? These are not the leadership characteristics that many people have long associated with what a "strong" leader looks like. In the past, and even today, many of these leadership skills are dismissed - and perhaps unsurprisingly, they are more often associated with women than men," she said. "In the same way that the global health landscape, and the challenges we're facing, are evolving - so too must the way we think about and approach leadership. Who leads and how they lead Matters."

She invited participation in the three-day event to celebrate women leaders, learn from their experiences, and explore effective strategies for advancing gender equality in health. Bastion said: "We'll explore tough issues and dig into what works and what hasn't worked - to get to the heart of what drives real change in advancing women's leadership and gender equality."

Urgent Global Challenges

Dr. Phillip Isdor Mpango, the Vice President of the United Republic of Tanzania, said the conference is happening at a "critical moment".

"The world continues to grapple with geopolitical tensions and conflicts, climate crisis, stubborn diseases and health pandemic risks, food insecurity and malnutrition, economic headwinds as well as rapid technological advancement and related threats and opportunities."

He added that to solve these problems around the world, we need strong leaders who are willing to work together with others.

"The world's problems are complex and require leaders who are flexible, consider everyone's views, and work together effectively," he added. "This conference's theme, "Re-imagining Leadership: New Approaches To New Challenges," perfectly reflects this need. WomenLift Health Global recognizes that women are disproportionately impacted by global issues. Since its founding, they've championed women's leadership in global health because they believe women's perspectives and priorities are key to innovative solutions. This conference, by uniting a diverse group of health leaders, embodies the strong partnerships needed to tackle these challenges."

The world faces many health issues, especially in low- and middle-income countries. These include infectious diseases like malaria and tuberculosis, non-communicable diseases, malnutrition, and environmental problems. Women, who are often the primary caregivers, are unfairly excluded from decision-making processes. This valuable resource of experience and leadership is lost.

"Tanzania, under President Samia Suluhu Hassan, offers a compelling example of women driving innovation in healthcare," said the VP.

"Take an example of the Ministry of Health, the Minister, the Deputy Permanent Secretary, the Chief Medical Officer, and other senior posts are held by women. Her Excellency the President has also taken a deliberate decision to increase the number of female judges to 36.5%. The number of women District and Regional Administrative Secretaries has also increased significantly in the range of 30 – 35%."

"Her administration prioritizes girls' education, achieving gender parity in enrollment...The President has also initiated the Samia Scholarship Program, which provides funding for undergraduate studies to Tanzanian students."

President Hassan champions clean energy initiatives and access to clean water, particularly in rural areas, where women often bear the burden of water collection. Additionally, the "M-Mama Program," an electronic referral system for pregnancy complications, has demonstrably saved lives. Tanzania has made significant progress in reducing maternal mortality and improving child health outcomes.

"The milestones by the President have been reached largely on account of the "staunch leadership and eyesight" of a woman leader at the very top," he said. "However, challenges remain. Climate change disproportionately impacts women, and cultural norms can hinder their advancement. Financial constraints limit investment in training women leaders, and rapid technological advancements risk leaving some behind."

Mpango is a "proud father" of four daughters, two of whom are medical doctors, one is an economist, and another is a lawyer. Reflecting on his experience as a father, he attests to the obstacles hindering women's advancement into high-ranking leadership roles.

Reimagining Leadership Now 

Tanzania's Health Minister, Ummy Ally Mwalimu, expressed her gratitude to WomenLift Health for selecting Tanzania as the host for this groundbreaking conference.

She expressed how the conference theme aligns perfectly with President Samia Suluhu's commitment to gender equality and underscores the Tanzanian government's ongoing efforts in this area. The minister said that the progress made in the health sector under President Suluhu's leadership, specifically noting the capabilities of women and their potential to make even greater contributions.

"As Minister for Health and previously Minister of State for Regional Administration and Local Government, I understand the immense demands placed upon these critical portfolios within Tanzania's government. Both ministries directly address daily health concerns," Mwalimu said, "requiring a strong, articulate, and attentive leader. The dynamic nature of these roles touches countless lives and presents constant, unplanned emergencies. Leading a dedicated and strong team is crucial - not just for guiding healthcare professionals, but also for mobilizing communities to respond effectively to the ongoing challenges of communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, and outbreaks."

"Balancing the responsibilities of a parliamentarian, Minister of Health, and housewife requires immense sacrifice...," she said.  "As an MP, I am beholden to my constituents' needs, while as Minister, I serve the nation's health priorities, particularly as Minister for Health. There have been "countless sleepless nights" and challenges. However, I am immensely proud of the positive outcomes we've achieved in improving Tanzania's healthcare."

"I just wanted to share with you that we are capable. We can deliver more," she concluded.

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