‘I walked out of the World Health Assembly due to women’s absence, and would do it again’

by Amref Health Africa

Global chief executive officer of Amref Health Africa Githinji Gitahi abruptly left a World Health Assembly stage when he found himself on an all-male panel at last year’s summit.

Murmurs swept the hushed conference room in Geneva, Switzerland, where member states had gathered to hear the chief executive of Amref, a health development NGO, discuss the way forward on climate resilience.

As Gitahi returns to the UN’s annual gathering this week, he spoke to the Mail & Guardian about what happened last year and why he might again leave a chair empty.

“It was awkward,” he says. “I’d dashed in from another meeting, went up on stage — and then looked around. The three speakers were men — all due to talk on an issue that disproportionately harms women. I felt very uncomfortable.

“The event started, the microphone was moving among the panellists, all quite formal. 

“But when it came to my [turn] to speak, I said, ‘I’m actually finding this very difficult. I can’t do this, talk about this, on an all-male panel.  I’m afraid I’ve got to get up now and leave that chair empty. Any woman qualified to talk on climate change, come and take my place.’

“Then I walked off.”

A flustered event organiser emerged, keen to keep Gitahi in the line-up, and told delegates that a female expert from the World Health Organisation had been invited but could not attend.

“Often you get excuses — ‘we’ve invited so-and-so’ — and things like that,” he says. “But it’s not good enough. Panels seem to be curated to give a voice to the most senior person — and many of these are still male, which makes for ‘manels’ [all male panels].”

“Why don’t they just get a non-director female, who’s just as informed, and also brings insights from a woman’s lived experience?”

Other pivotal global talks have also failed to platform women. 

Environmental campaigner Amelia Womack hit out at organisers of a panel on Africa at the COP27 climate talks in 2022, noting: “Another manel … it’s unacceptable that this keeps happening.”

Data shows that under-representation of women extends beyond policy-making 5%fivand into practice. The World Health Organisation called for action on gender equality — the fifth of the UN’s sustainable development goals for 2030 —  after revealing that while women are 70% of the global health workforce, they hold only 25% of senior jobs. 

In low-income countries — many of them across Africa — that average falls to 5%.

And yet, nations led by women during the Covid-19 pandemic had better outcomes and research shows people tend to be healthier when women are in charge

This has concerning implications for the millions in African nations, which are disproportionately male-dominated, and also off-track with UN sustainable development goals on maternal and newborn mortality, deadly infectious diseases and life-threatening conditions like cancer.

Uae Wto Trade Diplomacy
Botswana’s United Nations ambassador Lesiba Molokomme believes that giving more women the microphone at decision-making summits is essential. (Photo by Giuseppe CACACE / AFP)

Gitahi’s role at Amref is to make the continent healthier — and for him a key factor in this is removing the barriers that stop women from having a say.

“It’s not just about fairness,” he says. “It’s about getting the job done well. A woman is the best public health officer I’ve ever met. 

“My own mother had nine children, zero education, got married at 17, first gave birth in 1952, then went through the war with the British. She had no medical help. 

“She alone was tasked with the survival of her offspring — not the minister of health or a hospital doctor.

“The vast majority of households have a woman keeping a family alive and well, whether you’re educated or wealthy or not. 

“If we have women-led and women-responsive policies, and if women have real capacity, we have less child and maternal mortality, less malaria, less malnutrition. Fewer people die.”

International Gender Champions (IGC) is a global coalition of leaders campaigning to stop women being silenced across a range of sectors, including health. 

Botswana’s UN ambassador Athaliah Molokomme helps run the IGC’s Panel Parity Pledge to give more women the microphone at decision-making summits.

“The pledge was created to make ‘manels’ unacceptable, to shift the norm, and to ensure those most affected by issues participate in discussions that shape policies,” Molokomme said.

The ICG says putting fair numbers of women in the spotlight at events such as the World Health Assembly helps platform female role models and forge inclusive policies that actively address real-world problems.

Molokomme added: “We’ve made great progress in six hubs, including Geneva and Nairobi, but challenges remain. We’re experiencing pushback against women’s rights, particularly in relation to health. 

“It requires committed and courageous leadership to ensure that we don’t just talk, we act.”

Meanwhile, Gitahi, who is medically trained, has noticed that high-functioning women often bring “something extra” to problem-solving across a range of fields, including multilateral talks on universal health coverage and tackling Covid-19.

“During Covid, we had many challenges with decision-making. A 7pm curfew in Kenya meant women were giving birth alone at home because they were too scared of a confrontation with police — who themselves are largely male,” he said.

“It was a young woman obstetrician who spoke up at Amref and circumvented the policy by organising a licence for a taxi company to take them to a hospital after hours and gave them a toll-free line. The first week we had 1 500 calls.

“Extend that to other areas of health programming and you find that a woman with all the academic credentials, clinical and executive experience, and so on, will also bring something extra. She’ll say, ‘Wait a minute, last year when I was in labour this curfew would have been a problem.’

“There is also a woman’s nurturing instinct to care. When the money dried up for the toll-free line we found that the woman who initiated it then kept paying for it out of her own pocket.”

But Gitahi says disrupting convention can bring tension.

Climate Emergency Demonstration In London
No to manels: Environmental campaigner Amelia Womack. Photo: Wiktor Szymanowicz/Getty Images.

“Calling out other men does not always make you friends,” he says. “But it’s also possible to bring people with you. At that World Health Assembly walk-out, I wondered how it would all go.

“Actually, by the end of that session, another man had stepped down too — the female moderator took up a seat, as did a female delegate from the audience. Finally, there was some equal representation for a broader discussion on climate resilience.”

Gitahi is on the board of WomenLift Health, a programme to close the gender gap in global health leadership. It has led him to mentor women, including a community health worker in the Kibera slum in Nairobi.

“WomenLift has led me to act regularly,” he says. “There’s an incredible woman in Kibera whose life experience means that when I visit her in her home, I learn too.

“Things like the threat of radicalisation among her kids’ generation. Would I consider that in the mix? 

“Then all the biases she faces in a traditional society. We just need to remove barriers for women to shine like they should.  

“Within Amref I continuously call out male privilege. To me there’s no difference between that and racism. It’s about someone feeling superior to someone else. I’m constantly talking to CEOs about being conscious of it.”

Gitahi recalls a round-table where this was notably absent. He was chairing a meeting on vaccines for Ebola, the aggressively infectious virus with a death rate of up to 90%.

“There were about 40 guys on the list, not one woman. We had ministers of health coming to talk about their experiences tackling Ebola.

“I said, ‘I’m not doing it unless there’s a woman present.’ It was looking shaky until 30 minutes before, when the organiser stepped down and replaced himself with a woman. She had her own insights.”

The 77th World Health Assembly is running this week in Geneva, Switzerland. Gitahi is tabled for panels on health threats that have fused to form a “polycrisis” for the African continent.

But having pledged to quit all-male panels, regardless of circumstances, Gitahi will be walking out again if he finds himself alongside only men. “Some things are non-negotiable,” he says from his Geneva hotel.

Article first published on https://mg.co.za/world/2024-05-31-i-walked-out-of-the-world-health-assembly-due-to-womens-absence-and-would-do-it-again/

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