Fatuma’s Journey to Leadership

In the sparsely populated Gewane Woreda (district) in the Afar region of Ethiopia, Fatuma is just the second woman leader out of the 24 public leaders in the district. Born and raised in a rural village by a single mother, Fatuma knows the challenges faced by girls and women in the region. But she also knows the power of education and went on to get her Bachelor’s in Nursing.

Early in her career, Fatuma was hired to lead the district health office, but as a young, unmarried female professional, she often found it challenging to work with her male colleagues both at the health office and the district administrative office. It was difficult for her to get their acceptance, and she often found her decisions questioned by both her supervisor and her team. Patriarchal ideas are deeply embedded in Ethiopian society, preventing girls and women from fulfilling their economic, health, and social rights, particularly in pastoralist and agrarian communities. Fatuma was running up against the very thing she was working against for her clients.

Further complicating her work, there were limited resources and multiple emergencies to contend with. Due to limited budget allocation, the health office has had to rely mostly on partner support, especially during emergencies like COVID-19 and Chikungunya, a viral disease transmitted to humans through the bites of mosquitoes. Gender discrimination and funds weren’t her only concerns. Multiple emergencies in Afar and Amhara have hampered the delivery of essential services, disrupted livelihoods, and exacerbated safety risks, disproportionately affecting women and girls.

All of this led Fatuma to feel uncertain about her ability to do her job well, especially if confronted with other natural disasters in the future. But Fatuma was determined to challenge norms, motivate team members, and contribute to improving reproductive, maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent health services in her community.

Strengthening a skilled workforce begins by ensuring women are included at every level and is sustained by promoting gender equity, particularly at the leadership level. Through gender-transformative activities, EngenderHealth promotes women-friendly working environments for all our programs. We support women’s leadership development training to ensure women feel prepared and supported in their roles.

EngenderHealth recognizes the critical role of community-based primary healthcare workers in improving the availability and quality of essential health services and is sensitive to the unique challenges of each program and location. EngenderHealth has worked to provide the necessary technical assistance in meeting Fatuma’s vision for the district health office. Because of her story and others like it, EngenderHealth is adapting and rolling out primary healthcare leadership development programs specific to pastoral regions and support learning platforms to facilitate experience sharing among successful and emerging leaders. To ensure programs in pastoralist regions like Fatuma’s are successful, we provide technical assistance and training to zone health offices so they can strengthen existing structures and systems to be more responsive to pastoral needs and adapt to frequent emergencies.

Fatuma is now pursuing her Master of Public Health degree, focusing on gender-based violence, at Samera University so she can continue to grow as a leader at both the regional and national levels. She is using this opportunity to counsel other female students to be focused, continue their education, and be role models for their peers. She is proud to show how a pastoralist woman can make a change and contribute to addressing gender-based violence in her community while working for gender equity in the workplace.

Read the other stories in this series here, here, and here.