‘Potential of Women an Unrealized Promise’: 5 Questions with CARE Women’s Health Expert

Marnie Davidson is CARE Canada’s senior manager for global health. Drawing on years of experience in global and Canadian public health, Marnie discusses how the adoption of a feminist international assistance policy challenges traditional ways of working.

1. How does investment in the health and rights of women and girls support progress and defend gains made in international development?

The potential for women to shape social, cultural and economic life, as well as a future that fulfills the dreams of the girls and young women today, is the unrealized promise that limits human development.

Women and girls represent over 50 per cent of the world’s population – yet they are underrepresented and underserviced by public policies and institutions.

Around the world, their rights remain largely unrealized.

There is ample evidence showing that more gender equal societies are more prosperous and that investments in women and girls pay economic dividends in both the short and long-term for local and national economies. But we need to do more than see women as means towards an end.

At CARE, we focus on achieving the rights, health and well-being of women and girls as a critical development objective.

Canada’s international assistance policies, likewise, have long defined gender equality as a development outcome in and of itself. Today, as never before, Canada needs to lead the world in gender equality.

2. How is the world progressing against international development goals concerning the health and rights of women and children? What key gaps remain?

We are driven by a paradigm that “if you can’t measure it, you can’t change it.” But what if what we are trying to change cannot be measured or measured in the way we are used to?

The 1994 Conference on Population and Development in Cairo led to fundamental changes in the discourse around population, health, women and development.

Since then the world has struggled to establish a clear agenda for advancing gender equality and women’s empowerment through international treaties and key instruments such as the Millennium Development goals, the Global Fund for AIDS, TB and Malaria. The verdict is still out on the Sustainable Development Goals.

There has been measurable increases in the percentage of girls attending and finishing primary school, a reduction in maternal mortality and women’s increased presence in economic life.

And yet our grasp of what has actually been achieved in terms of advancing women’s rights, overall health and well-being remains tenuous at best.

I remember a panel discussion at the Women Deliver Conference in Copenhagen in 2016 where the representative of a foundation told the leader of a women’s rights organization that the foundation could never fund women’s rights because you can’t measure quantitatively “what you do.”

If we are going to have a successful, feminist international assistancve policy framework, we need to get comfortable with that.

3. What models and approaches are today believed to have the best potential for yielding results? In what areas does Canada stand to have the greatest impact?

The Government of Canada has committed to adopting a feminist approach to our international assistance. Accountability for development outcomes needs to be reoriented in ways that encourage the promotion of gender transformations within societies and defined by the women we are supporting. This requires challenging governments, non-governmental organizations, international financial institutions and multilateral agencies to change the way we do business.

Development actors also need better language and new approaches to show that gender transformation and achieving the rights of women and all individuals continues to be the our best hope for stable societies and a more peaceful planet.

This requires directly funding women’s rights organizations, and allowing women themselves to define their own visions and measures of success.

4. What does participatory health policy involve? How does it support a rights-based approach to health policy?

Nothing about us without us was the clarion call of gay men in the 1990s, who organized themselves and demanded a say in decisions affecting their lives. Without this activism, HIV would likely still be the untreatable death sentence it once was.

The same approach is today understood to be our best hope for countering the shortcomings that continue to undermine women and children’s health and rights. Around the world, women continue to die in childbirth at shocking rates; yet citizen activism to confront these mostly preventable deaths remains meagre at best. As a result, decisions about women’s health are made mostly by men at home, at the health clinic, at the district health authority, and in the highest levels of government.

Unsurprisingly, women’s needs are often confused within this hierarchy by what others think they should have – as opposed to what the women themselves are saying they want.

Participatory health policy involves ensuring women’s participation in the planning and delivery of health services. This depends upon the existence and effectiveness of women’s organizations capable of advocating women’s interests throughout the health system. Feminist organizations, from this perspective, can fundamentally change the conversation from what women should have – the age-old refrain of, “there there dear” – to what women actually say they need and want.

We aren’t there yet, which is part of the reason why efforts to address maternal mortality saw some of the least progress under the Millennium Development Goals. The implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals targeting women’s health and rights, therefore, needs to be driven by the maxim, Nothing about women without women.

5. What motivates and drives your passion for health and development, and what makes you optimistic for the future?

I am profoundly grateful and often surprised about how fortunate I am in life and how lucky I am to work in an industry that seeks to bring about an end to injustice.

My passion is driven by my gratitude to be able to come to work and do what I do every day. I see it as a lifelong pursuit to understand how, as a pacifist, we can act in accordance with our values every day despite a world that sometimes seems in contradiction.

We are making a lot of progress. I frequently reflect on where we were with LGBT rights just a few years ago and am reminded that we are changing the conversation, even if slowly.

Learn more about CARE's work to promote sexual, reproductive and maternal health.