Advocate Jill Sheffield: Courage Puts Women's Reproductive Rights on Global Agenda

Source: Women Deliver Toolkit

Source: Women Deliver Toolkit

Sometimes, even the most powerful institutional leaders are not ready to push certain progressive policies. An example of that is how, until recently, world leaders didn’t agree on how to promote reproductive health or fully understand the positive correlation between gender empowerment and economic prosperity, and how it could be applied to the growth strategies of developing countries.  Sometimes, this type of shift in perception requires a more grassroots approach to galvanize institutional reform.

Jill Sheffield, an educator and advocate in maternal, reproductive and sexual health and rights since the 1960s, is the prime example of someone who leveraged her experience in civil society to greater structural changes. As founder of Family Care International (FCI), she started the first nonprofit organization to ever be entirely devoted to reducing mortality rates of death associated with maternity and childbirth. She was able to onboard institutions like the World Bank and the WHO to work on her Safe Motherhood Initiative. She also founded Women Deliver in 2007, which not only organizes international conferences on women’s reproductive health and rights, but also seeks to make these issues part of the global agenda of politicians, and provide activists from around the world with advocacy tools and resources.

Jill Sheffield, Founder and President of Women Deliver.  Source: Women Deliver.

Jill Sheffield, Founder and President of Women Deliver. Source: Women Deliver.

“I like doing what others are not doing. It is really a combination of need and energy and you have to pick an issue that you believe in.”

Here is an excerpt from Margareta Barchan’s interview with the Founder Jill Sheffield:

Jill Sheffield: Our first conference assembling policymakers, activists, journalists, and donors was held in 2007, and aimed to put maternal health on the global policy agenda. The reason for having it was that the major institutions were not playing well together to promote that specific item during global institutional meetings. That was very upsetting to me. To make real progress on maternal health, you need all the major players agreeing on common strategies.  So we planned to have this conference in London. The advertising agency we hired to promote the event told us: “Face it, it’s August.  And you have only 400 paying guests now. The conference is in October. You’re going to have to make your children and grandchildren clean the dishes for you to pay for it.” I couldn’t accept it. I went up to my room and sent emails to everyone on my mailing list: “You said you were coming, please make the reservation now.” By October, we had 1700 paying guests!

During the conference, I told participants “You can’t leave until we agree publicly what we are going to do to solve the problem.” Nobody left, and we had a couple of productive days collaborating together. If you work on education for girls, nutrition, water or climate justice for women and girls - we have to work together. We expect to have 6000 participants in Copenhagen this year at Women Deliver’s  4th Global Conference , from May 16th-19th 2016. The conference will focus on how to implement the Sustainable Development Goals so that they target accurately girls and women, specifically on issues of reproductive health, gender equality, and economic empowerment. The way that this conference has grown over the last 9 years is really proof that women’s empowerment is a global movement now.

Women Deliver's 4th Global Conference:  Source: Women Deliver.

Women Deliver's 4th Global Conference: Source: Women Deliver.

Margareta Barchan: Have you ever thought of this from a brave leadership perspective?

Sheffield: It is one of the underpinning issues I so admire - the courage of the women especially in certain more traditional communities in East Africa.  They have such a hard life, taking care of children and family and often not having the adequate support and health resources for pregnancy and childbirth.  They have no one to turn to to get help from trained healthcare practitioners and providers on basic family planning. Your life is at risk all the time because you want to plan for your life but as a young woman you can’t plan for your pregnancy. That lesson became apparent to me when I was living in Kenya. I visited a new family-founded family planning clinic of the Pumwani Maternity Hospital: “I have time, I can type, I know Swahili, and I have a car. Can I help?” It became almost a full time job for me and I can say definitely the best educational experience I’ve ever had. I stayed for almost two years. I was in a low-income part of Nairobi. The clinic had 6 beds. I went to the local market and bought cloths, and the doctors helped me to hang it up between the beds. It was the first time the women could have a pelvic examination done in more privacy.

There was a rule at the time in Kenya stipulating that a women needed to come with permission from her husband in order to have a medical examination done. I asked if it was necessary for a man to have his wife’s signature. Of course not and I can’t accept this.  At the time, women had voting rights. I am not prepared to break the law but am willing to break a rule. Every time a woman came to the clinic without her husband’s signature, they were referred to me because I was a foreigner and had more leeway.

One time, a woman came up to me and told me that she was 27 years old, had 11 pregnancies and 6 living children. I thought about how she had a lot of courage to come see us, and she wanted the service, so I had to do what I could to help her – and other women in her situation.

Barchan: Can you give an example of a situation where you had to be bold and overcome obstacles?

Sheffield: Yes, I can think of different situations that demanded some braveness. I co-founded FCI in 1987, whose mandate is to pursue a world where no woman suffers preventable injury or death from pregnancy or childbirth-related causes, and in which all people are able to enjoy their sexual and reproductive health rights. The UN had just finished a Decade for Women. It was at a big conference for women in Nairobi, where I attended a session at the Health Organization. There was a woman who made a statement: “We think that there are women, somewhere in the world, dying each minute, but we don’t have the evidence. Is there anybody out there who is willing to work with that?” I left the foundation and started Women Deliver to focus on that gap in knowledge and global support system for women around sexual health and gender empowerment issues.  

The first thing we did was to ask the World Bank and other foundations to help us. We asked leaders in countries where it seemed to be a problem. The question we asked was: “Is it true that women are dying disproportionately from pregnancy and childbirth in your country?” And the answer always came back as "Yes." The UN started to collect statistics. It turns out to be the reality, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia.

So that’s how Women Deliver was born. We wanted to move rapidly, take risks and form an Advisory Group that would be composed of experts to advise us on what to do. It is our responsibility and we are going to do this. We are not taking credit, we are just a vector for mobilizing people. We wanted people to understand when you are a government official in a low resource selling country, that you have to invest where you have the best return on your money. And that is to focus on women in an agricultural economy, they do the labor.  It is not just the right thing to do, it is the economically smart thing to do!

Barchan: When you did this, did you have any thoughts or faced dilemmas about this?

Sheffield: I never had a doubt about this. I knew whatever I did, it couldn’t be wrong. Women hold families together. I remember one situation when I was in another clinic in Kenya and a women came in who had been in labor for two days and her husband was just sitting there while the midwife was trying to save her life. He said that he would soon find another wife who is going to take care of the children, and the household. I said to him: “Women are not just a commodity that you can replace with another one.” The women died unfortunately and I have no doubts that he found himself a new wife.

We have to give people what they want, to get involved. We put together material that women and all activists can use. To focus on women is the smart thing to do.

Barchan: What do you think about the next generation – will they be more engaged around these questions?

Sheffield: The world has certainly become closer. I don’t know if the next generation will be more engaged. But I happen to think that if you know about this - you can’t continue in the same way as before.

Culture takes a long time to change whether it is technology, social media, in schools, or women organizing with men as allies. It is a big and global problem. But I think it is changing. Our conferences and network of concerned people is evidence of our success. Women are delivering so much more than babies now. And people see that but are also compelled by the argument for economic prosperity through women’s rights. I think our conference has helped in that transition. The issue is so compelling. No one wants to see poverty in his or her country.

Barchan: What gives you the energy to pursue these endeavors?

Sheffield: I like to solve problems. I saw the tragedy in Kenyan society. I like doing what others are not doing. It is really a combination of need and energy and you have to pick an issue that you believe in and that has not been fully developed before. In relation to the conference in 2013, I met ministers and governments to raise money for the foundation. It was not that easy but now it is very different. When you have done your homework and it is an important cause, people are willing to support you.

Sometimes you have the wrong thread presented to you and it takes guts not to follow. My own story may seem to be a straight line but there have been so many mistakes and troubles on the way. You have to take opportunities presented to you. And you need to have a support system, people believing in you. My husband has been fantastic, no one knew if this initiative was going to go anywhere.  But you have to do it. The older I get, the more I trust my inside voice and my instincts.

Jill Sheffield was granted a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2008 by the American Public Health Association. In the same year, Family Care International received the United Nations Population Award for its exceptional work in sexual and reproductive health and rights. There has been a 47 % reduction in global maternal mortality, according to the findings of the United Nations. Sheffield has also been recognized as a distinguished alumna by Columbia University's Teachers College for her work in women’s and health education.