International Women’s Day: Looking Inward to Move Forward

Over the weekend, I reflected on both International Women’s Day, which we celebrated a week ago today, and on the one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much has been written about the losses people have experienced around the world as the pandemic has forced us to stay home, to avoid physical contact with neighbors, colleagues, friends, and family members. Even amidst this great sense of loss, many have found new joys, taken up new hobbies, and forged new ways of connecting across distances. As vaccination levels rise and infection and death rates decline, it will be tempting to simply return to the way we did things in the past. What we should do, instead, is to build back better, build back fairer, build back stronger. That’s what we’re trying to do at EngenderHealth.

One way to create a better “new normal” is to bring the lessons learned over the last year into our day-to-day lives. I saw that concept in action with International Women’s Day last week. Celebrated every year on March 8, International Women’s Day is an important moment for the global community of people and organizations working on women’s rights, women’s health, and gender equality, to rally together, to generate excitement, to show solidarity, and to get new people engaged in supporting the work. The day usually involves thousands of in-person gatherings in offices and communities around the world, all abuzz with the excitement of the moment and bearing the hallmarks of a campaign or a rally—signs, speeches, songs, and slogans. This year, while the spirit was the same and the excitement was there, the activities themselves were different, with many activities moving online. There were few large events. Interactive games and informational booths were nowhere to be seen. The shift forced everyone to think creatively about what International Women’s Day can be.

Our teams at EngenderHealth rose to the challenge. Some implemented activities focused on sharing project results and lessons (for example, see here); others looked inward—for example, the EngenderHealth teams in Ethiopia and Tanzania held online staff events to honor women leaders, celebrate their accomplishments, and recognize their contributions to EngenderHealth’s success. The mix of approaches aligned well with our strategic plan, which calls us to work both internally and externally for equity.

However, the internal work can often be more challenging. It’s not something donors typically invest in. It can be hard to make time for looking inward. The energy spent on introspection is often more readily focused on outward-facing activities. The reactions to our internal events for International Women’s Day confirmed, once again, that investing that time and energy is valuable:

Metasebia Admassu, Regional Team Leader for the SNNP and Sidama Region Program Office in Ethiopia, wrote, “As a women, mother, health professional, and member of the EngenderHealth staff for a decade, I witness and feel to the bone the achievements and success that I observe from the women and girls whose lives were saved as the result of improved access to quality safe abortion and family planning services…I have never been more proud to be part of EngenderHealth as these days when EngenderHealth looks inward, acknowledging and championing women leaders among us.”

Prudence Masako, Country Representative for the Tanzania Country Office, wrote that “Gender equality is more than a campaign, but a necessity for our society to progress.” She continued, “For the last 14 months, COVID-19 has threatened the gains we have made in women’s empowerment and reproductive health. But at the same time, it has offered an opportunity for women to rise up. From our office Administrator to our drivers, to technical teams, our women leaders have stepped up and ensured we protect our gains and gain more. I have seen how women and girl leaders are working with the Government, health facilities, and communities to ensure these gains are not lost. I am inspired by many of you, and through you I have found hope amid fear and despair.”

As we build back better in the months ahead, I will bring with me this lesson from International Women’s Day 2021: Remember to make time to focus inward. Even in big, public moments, it’s important to invest time and energy in our staff. Gender equity, as Prudence says, is more than a campaign, it’s a necessity. And it takes both internal and external work to make and sustain progress.

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