Eric Ramirez-Ferrero is Chief of Party of EngenderHealth’s CHAMPION Project in Tanzania. CHAMPION, supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), is an initiative to increase men’s involvement in preventing the spread of HIV. The project takes a holistic approach to HIV prevention by addressing the underlying gender issues that drive HIV transmission.
How and why did you get into work that addresses gender and HIV?
Interestingly, it happened through feminism—and specifically reading A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf as a young person. I had the (then) profound realization that biology is not destiny, and that sex roles and sexuality are intricately woven together with cultural values—and thus are changeable. I studied feminist theory and medical anthropology in grad school and became an activist for abortion and reproductive rights, which led me to a job at Planned Parenthood. That’s how I began my professional journey.
What personally motivates you?
I’m sure this says a lot about my own sense of self and personal struggles, but I am still awed by women’s efforts to find a voice, place, and power. I am moved by people’s awakening to their strengths and capacities and acting on that to change their lives—and the world.
Through your work, have you encountered girls or women who have overcome extreme hardship or boys or men who have been transformed?
Every day—I work and live in Tanzania, and life here is tough. I am surrounded by people who have beaten the odds, gone against expectations, found their voices, and are now speaking out and working toward making life better for others.
What are some of the most effective ways to bring change so that women have more control over their health and lives? And how can men become engaged in the struggle for women’s rights?
I think the answers to these two questions are the same. First, both men and women have to have a reason to question the way things are—to question their relative position of either privilege or oppression in the social system. Part of what EngenderHealth does is help people ask questions like: Why do men control sexual relations? Don’t women have the right to protect themselves from HIV? Why aren’t men ever asked about their reproductive intentions in demographic surveys? Is it okay that gender-based violence is so common that it is considered normal behavior? Why are men made to feel uncomfortable when they do want to participate in health care visits with their families? And, why doesn’t anyone (women, doctors, men themselves) expect men to be active in promoting their families’ health?
I think people usually have to have a personal experience with a daughter, sister, or mother suffering from inequality—and its health consequences—to start them on the path to change. And of course, the next step is personal reflection, like the consciousness-raising groups of the early feminist movement in the United States: getting people to think through their personal experiences and values critically, reassessing them, and acting on these “awakenings.” It was exactly these types of small-group experiences that fomented a revolution in America regarding gender and other civil rights issues. We think it can happen this way in Tanzania, too. That’s exactly what we are trying to do with both men and women in our communities through the Men As Partners® program. It’s extremely gratifying to see them go through that experience and hear them say, “We need to change” and then go about doing it.