10 Questions with Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen

Katja Iversen

Katja Iversen

This week, more than 5,000 people from 169 countries have gathered at the Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen to discuss how to advance the lives of women and girls. World leaders, youth activists, NGO representatives, and others will discuss ways to improve maternal and reproductive health, girls’ education, and many more issues.

I caught up with women Deliver’s CEO Katja Iversen in advance of the conference to find out the biggest topics at the table this year.

Sonia Narang: What will be the focus of Women Deliver 2016?

Katja Iversen: The sole focus will be on solutions. It will focus on how we can make development matter most for girls and women. We will look at the proven ways it can be done within the health field, education, economic empowerment, and women’s access to resources.

It will be solutions, solutions, solutions, that can be scaled up and inspire. We know what happens in one country might inspire in another, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel all the time.

Maravo Solanki, 18, is the first girl in her Indian village to go to college. Her older sister was married at 14, and never got an education beyond primary school. But, marriage isn't in Maravo's near future, and she wants to become a police officer like her father. Credit: Sonia Narang

Maravo Solanki, 18, is the first girl in her Indian village to go to college. Her older sister was married at 14, and never got an education beyond primary school. But, marriage isn’t in Maravo’s near future, and she wants to become a police officer like her father. Credit: Sonia Narang

Narang: What are the biggest challenges that face women and girls in disaster zones?

Iversen: We should never forget to look at the situation for girls and women in disaster struck areas, whether it’s drought or whether it’s famine, whether it’s man-made or humanitarian or natural disasters.

It’s very important to look at how health systems are often failing in disasters. There’s a lack of health personnel like midwives, or skilled birth attendants. There’s a lack of services in general. Imagine a woman having to give birth and there’s no clinic, there’s no hospital, there’s no doctors, there’s no midwives.

We need a health system that is ready to deliver for women whenever a woman is ready to deliver, and that means a 24/7 health system, and that can come in different ways.

Gains for girls and women are hard to secure, in terms of health, but they are so easy to lose. That’s what we see in disasters and when people are migrating, such as refugees.

It’s time to put girls and women at the forefront, and really think about the situation for them when we cope with disasters. Looking at girls and women, and pregnant women, shouldn’t be an afterthought. It should be front and center.

Narang: So, how do you work with local and national governments to persuade them to make maternal and child health a priority rather than an afterthought?

Iversen: In natural disasters and war zones, girls and women are first to lose out when it comes to health, particularly reproductive and maternal health. It is imperative that the government or whatever authorities are in place really take it seriously. It is not only the individual girl or woman who will pay the price; it is everybody.

Luckily, we see there’s a big movement around girls and women in emergencies. We see it in the responses happening now. There’s much more focus on the situation for girls and women in pregnancy, and in general. That is very encouraging to see.

There are some very concrete steps to take as well. We need to look at health personnel. How can you get them out where they’re most needed? How can you get the services and the goods to the women?

Narang: In the past few years, what progress and innovations have you seen in improving access to reproductive health services?

Iversen: The situation today is that there are still about 800 women dying every single day from preventable causes in pregnancy and childbirth. There are still 225 million women who do not have access to modern contraception, but want to postpone their next pregnancy.

I’m so happy to see that there is a lot of progress, and we see it in several fronts. We see it within the health system. Over the last ten years, we have a lot more maternal death audits. So, the health system looks at “why is it that women die?,” “what is it that we can do so it doesn’t happen again?”

We see it in the goods and the technology. We have new types of contraception coming out. We have cheaper contraception coming out. We have a new medication that can deal with hemorrhage, which is one of the leading causes of women who die in childbirth. We see new technology apps that are being developed for birth attendants, where they can get remote help. Women can get transferred money so they can get transported to health facilities instead of giving birth on a mud floor.

We see promising tests and results put to market, either as new things or at lower prices. If you look at long-lasting, reversible contraception, it has proven fantastically useful, both in a developed and developing world setting.

Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen says education is the backbone of a healthy and a prosperous society. She says every girl deserves the same opportunities as her brothers. Credit: Sonia Narang

Narang: What are the main barriers that girls still face in getting an education today?

Iversen: This morning, 62 million girls woke up and did not go to school. The root cause of this is sexism and an underlying perception that educating a girl is less important than educating a boy. That, in turn, perpetuates a cycle of exclusion.

If we look at the main barriers for getting girls into classrooms, we can point to child marriage, which is robbing girls of their dignity and their futures. Often when a girl gets married, she is automatically taken out of school or she gets pregnant and she is forced out of school.

We also see that many schools don’t have bathrooms or toilets for girls. So when a girl starts to menstruate, it is almost impossible for her to continue her education. Often, they don’t have sanitary napkins or other remedies readily available.

We see violence, both when girls are traveling to and from school, but also in school, including abuse by teachers. And, then we have the girls’ duties at home. Often, a girl will be expected to work – she’s doing things like cooking, collecting water and firewood. That is another symptom of deep-rooted beliefs that girls are less worth than boys.

I just wrote an article about my grandmother, and she was born in 1914. The situation was exactly the same for her. She did not get an education because all the money from her family went to her brother’s education since he had more worth than her. Luckily, we can see things can improve fast. It doesn’t have to take two generations, but it’s going in the right direction.

Education is a backbone of a healthy and a prosperous society. We see the ripple effects in health, we see the ripple effects in women surviving childbirth, we see the ripple effects in a country’s economy. Every girl deserves the same shot at literacy and at health as any of her brothers do.

Narang: How can more girls get access to education?

Iversen: In countries where there are user fees, we see that abolishing user fees, or making direct cash transfers to families can increase the number of girls going to school.

We also see something as simple as having toilets can help. We see access to water and sanitation is very important. It’s also necessary to work with influencers in communities, whether it’s the teacher or preacher who are advocates for girls’ education, and also with families, both the mother and father. Those are some of the solutions we’ve seen that work.

Narang: In so many countries, I’ve seen that girls and young women cannot go to school because they’re married so early. Why does child marriage still persist and what are the biggest reasons for child marriage today?

Iversen: Gender inequities are deeply rooted in a country’s norms, and that’s the primary cause of child marriage. Also, poverty often motivates parents to marry off their daughters young because the financial burden is moved from the girl’s family to the family of the husband.

Parents often wrongly think that their daughters are better protected from assault if they are married. It’s very interesting and devastating to see how, in situations of crisis, numbers of child marriages go up, because families think they can protect their daughters better if they are married.

In order to see child marriage decline, we need to work different fronts. There’s the legal part. Banning legally child marriages is on the book in most countries, but it’s not reinforced. So, it’s working with the legislators, the government, but also the enforcers. It’s also important to change cultural norms, and work with the families.

We have seen wonderful examples of how men have taken responsibility for abandoning child marriage. They are networks around the world of young men who work hard to stop child marriages. That’s what we need.

Narang: That shows the important role that men play in preventing child marriage. Why is it essential to involve men and boys in this conversation and to get them to understand and push for the rights of women?

Iversen: In the world today, most of the power is in the hands of men. So, if we want to change what’s happening in the world, we will need to work with both men and women. Young men are a powerful force for change. They can see that change is possible and that change is needed and that change is beneficial for everybody.

When we invest in girls and women, in their health, rights, and well-being, everybody wins, not just the individual, but the whole society and the whole country. Many men see that and they see it both as the right thing to do, from a rights perspective, but also as a sound thing to do from a common good perspective. It’s very important to involve them in government, communities, and in families. When we can change hearts and minds there, that’s when we see real change happen.

Around the world, 62 million girls do not go to school. The young women raising their hands in this photograph are the first in their families to attend college. Credit: Sonia Narang

Around the world, 62 million girls do not go to school. The young women raising their hands in this photograph are the first in their families to attend college. Credit: Sonia Narang

Narang: How does limited access to water and sanitation take a greater toll on women and girls?

Iversen: When families, communities, and girls and women don’t have access to safe water and sanitation, it’s often the girls and women who pay the price. They are the ones who walk long distances for water and spend time on what could have been spent on education or working, earning money. It is also girls who pay the price in terms of schooling. We see that when girls start menstruating, that is when most girls stop going to school because there aren’t facilities.

How can a childbirth be safe if you don’t have access to clean water? How can a clinic in general function if you don’t have access to clean water?

We also see it in relation to climate change. It’s the women who are the everyday innovators. It’s the women who have to find out how to we get water more easily. Women are often the first responders who have to deal with the consequences every single day.

Narang: What are some of the positive outcomes you’ve seen in women’s lives around the world?

Iversen: We see a lot of progress in the world. Maternal mortality has almost halved since 1990. More girls are getting to school. Not enough, but it’s going in the right direction. More women are working, and we also see more women in power. Not as much as we want to see. Only one-fifth of all parliamentarians in the world are women, and many fewer ministers.

We see positive examples all over the world. In Rwanda, 63% of parliamentarians are women. It is also where we see most of the health indicators going in right direction. There’s a significant drop in maternal mortality, and a significant drop in child mortality.

Sri Lanka, which has invested heavily in midwives, has seen mortality plummet. In Ethiopia, health extension workers have ensured that many more women have access to contraception. This has had a tremendous effect on maternal mortality and health and wealth in general. We remain optimistic because the solutions are out there.

Get occasional updates from UN Dispatch

* indicates required

Want Our Social Media List?