Building Strong Women Leaders in Family Planning through Mentoring

{Photo credit: MSH staff}Photo credit: MSH staff

Women experience a disproportionate burden of disease and death due to inequities in access to basic health care, nutrition, and education. Part of this burden can be attributed to a significant underrepresentation of women in positions of leadership. To address some of the challenges that women in East Africa face in achieving leadership positions, the US Agency for International Development-funded Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) Project, led by Management Sciences for Health (MSH), established an online mentoring network for women working in the field of family planning and reproductive health (FP/RH).

The East Africa Women’s Mentoring Network (EAWMN) connects ambitious women seeking personal and professional development to women with substantial professional and leadership experience. Hosted online, the EAWMN can engage mentors and mentees regionally, allowing them access to new networks that would otherwise be out of reach. The participants–experienced and aspiring women leaders alike–represent service providers, midwives, program managers, policymakers, teachers, advocates, and many other positions.

One EAWMN mentor explained that supporting a new generation of leaders was precisely her purpose when joining the network. Said Grace Ikirimat a mentor to two young women in the network:

Reproductive health issues are mainly affecting women, so having women in leadership positions will go a long way in having policy change to address the existing problems and making governments understand and address these pressing issues.

At the beginning of the mentoring relationship, each mentor/mentee pair creates goals for the year-long mentoring connection including family planning and reproductive health goals. Mentors support mentees with strategies for balancing career and family, combating harassment, and prioritizing work that will enhance mentees’ leadership skills, careers, and overall professional development. Members communicate through the online EAWMN platform, WhatsApp, Skype, and email to share their FP/RH projects, webinars, and learning opportunities.

Working with her mentor, Namakau Nyambe has been developing a proposal for improved post-abortion care.

I found that there was a gap in post-abortion care and post-abortion contraceptives. The problem is that many women are coming for abortion again and again because post-abortion family planning is not given. I developed the first draft of the proposal and sent it to my mentor. Right now, I am working on the feedback and comments that I got back from her.

October 2015 marks the end of the EAWMN’s first year. To highlight the successes and relationships built throughout its first year, the EAWMN brought together 30 members for a Learning Collaborative Forum in Nairobi, Kenya during early September. At the Forum, participants and the LMG Project staff focused on peer learning by sharing and discussing challenges, successes, and important leadership skills.

Developing women leaders, and increasing the number of women holding leadership positions in health, has far-reaching benefits. In many cases, women are not only beneficiaries of health services, but also important providers of health care. However, when women are underrepresented in health leadership and management, FP/RH health services often suffer. Similarly, engaging women in health governance is linked to more responsive and efficient health systems.

Over the last year, the EAWMN has tapped into a sorely underutilized resource: the leadership potential of women. During the lead up to the International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) from November 9-12, success stories from the EAWMN will be shared on the LMG Project blog. Be sure to follow the EAWMN blog series, and tune-in to ICFP where the LMG Project will share lessons learned from the EAWMN and its impact on FP/RH.