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Exclusive Interview: Robin Gorna

As part of our ongoing Q&A series, Women in Dev spoke to Robin Gorna, Feminist AIDS activist and co-founder of SheDecides on feminist leadership, building movements and applying a gender lens to the HIV space.

Q: Women in Dev will bring together women at every stage of their career. What is the piece of advice that you most often give? And what was the best piece of advice you have received?

There are three great pieces of career advice that I always go back to, and share with others: 

  • Find your strengths and play to them.
  • Choose where you want to be (location) and who you want to be with (people) – and then find a job that gives you both of those. We spend so much time at work, it is important to be happy and to be with people you like & admire;
  • When looking for your next role, don’t always look up – sometimes moving sideways or “down” is better in the long run – treat the next step as a trampoline or springboard that gives you space to move where you want in the future

Someone once described management to me as “Be yourself with skill”. It’s a great description that I try hard to live up to & often share with others – you need to know yourself well enough (your weaknesses as much as your strengths) and do your best to expand on your strengths, play to them – and moderate your behaviour so that the best shines through. We are none of us perfect – and by knowing our weaknesses, we have a chance to do our best to minimise them and find ways around them – and most importantly choosing roles where we can play to our strengths, and support others to play to their strengths and be the best they can be, we have the best chance of making real change.

I’m a big believer in taking steps to get your ego out of the way, listening hard and learning what is needed to get good results. And working with great people who are different from you – in every way so that together you can be great at everything that is needed.

The other point about “being yourself with skill” is bringing all of you to the work that you do. In the AIDS world many people know my twin sons – as a single mother I decided not to choose between being with the people I love and doing the work I love, rather I combined them (quite a lot when they were little). I was the 1st Community Chair of the big International AIDS Conference in 1998 and that meant that I met many leading scientists and great policy makers while I was (simultaneously) breastfeeding my twins and chairing meetings. I didn’t do it as a political act (it was purely pragmatic) but in a small way I hope that it sent the message that motherhood doesn’t mean giving up on your professional life – unless you want it to (& I reckon that is a great choice too – it just was not mine)

Q: As a proud feminist, what are the challenges you see on the path to greater equality for women in the development space? What does feminist leadership offer in the way of solutions?

This is a tricky question. One side of me wants to say that challenges for gender equality and institutional sexism are everywhere – not just the international development space (or industry as it is becoming). But of course there are aspects of this life that make achieving gender equality tougher than it should be. And that is especially troubling given that equality and rights are at the core of everything we are about. After all, international development is all about creating a fairer society and creating more equity, or at the very least more opportunity for those societies, communities and individuals born into poverty.

Yet on a personal level, any industry that depends on the mobility of its workers has natural challenges to gender equality as we balance all the different sides of our lives. This can be especially tricky for those of us who are the primary parents (not exclusively women obviously). On top of all the juggling with child care when I went on random work trips, I really had no idea what international schooling would mean for my sons, and the complexities it would cause for their educational lives. There is much that has been great for them about our very varied lives, but also some pretty big challenges adjusting to so many different systems. I’ve often been asked in job interviews why I changed jobs relatively frequently – and one of the reasons is that I was trying to manage what I judged that my sons needed at that stage in their lives, just as much as what I wanted for my own career.

More broadly – and perhaps related to the mobility side of things – there is a macho “old boys club” side of what we do, and it’s taking a long time to see women at the top of organisations. When I led the IAS and PMNCH, I was frequently the only woman on panels of global health groups. And of course – and not unrelated – over the last year or so we have seen our own “MeToo” moments emerging, especially in some parts of the UN and bigger INGOs as well as humanitarian contexts (that seem to be a lightning rod for bad behaviour). These need urgent attention, and I salute the brave women (and others) who have stood up and spoken out. Many institutions really need to make massive cultural changes to stop this type of bullying and predatory behaviour from continuing and flourishing. At the same time, I would hate for younger women to be afraid of getting involved – it is not everywhere and there are people of huge integrity committed to making big change.

And I suppose that is where Feminist Leadership is so important – leadership that takes us back to the core of what the Development sector should be about. We really need transformational leadership that is grounded in humility and respect for the people and societies that we are working for. To achieve equity, advance human rights, and make the changes that we are committed to, the international development “industry” needs to create space for the talents and skills of everyone who has a contribution to make, and that means sharing power in a robust and genuine way. For me Feminist Leadership is all about intersectionality, and so we need to work just as forcefully for racial and cultural equality, inclusivity of all genders, sexual orientations, religions, and people of varied abilities and ages – as well as tackling the challenges for women. It’s about putting values, integrity and professionalism first – not cronyism and egos.

Q: Your 1996 book ‘Vamps, Virgins and Victims: How Can Women Fight AIDS?’ put forward what was at the time a revolutionary view of HIV/AIDS. You’ve been at the forefront of women-led conversations about AIDS and women’s health – how must the discourse change further to ‘treat women right’?

I appreciate the feedback, and it is true that back in the 80s and 90s even acknowledging that women and girls were getting HIV was quite revolutionary. Now it seems commonplace. What remains distressing is that the archetypes – that women with HIV are positioned as lascivious “whores”, pure mothers (Virgin Mary style) or innocent “victims” – remain commonplace. As we approach the 40th anniversary of HIV being described, we need to do more to address the complexities of how diverse women are affected by HIV, and how we need to speak to the variety of our lives. Women have never been a homogenous group, and I really worry that people talk in a simplistic way about our latest acronym, AGYW (adolescent girls and young women) rather than digging into the complexities, like the fact that (for example) there are women whose risk is that they exchange sex for housing, schooling, money – and (the least spoken about!) pleasure. We need to be bold enough, and smart enough to put HIV in the proper context of people’s lives, which are usually messy and complicated and so need more robust nuanced responses that provide services for people in ways that respond to what matters for them. And that also means having much more sophisticated data.

Moving forward I just want to see a gender lens applied thoughtfully across all that happens in the HIV space. It is great that there are so many advances – really quite unbelievable for those of us who have been involved since the beginning – but why is it that when the global reports come out they still don’t break down the data by gender. I don’t want to know simply that xxx thousand new cases of AIDS – but how many of those are women? Men? Trans? And what about the age differences? There are specialist reports that will show the huge inequity (with far more adolescent girls infected than adolescent boys) – but I want to see that information on a routine basis. That way when we hear that there is progress we can track whether that progress is even across society – and if not, that programmes can be put in place to course correct. It’s frustrating because many of us have been calling for this for a couple of decades and it is still seen as something niche rather than routine.

My other big bleat is Pleasure and how easy it has become to talk about women’s health, SRHR (an acronym that seems to obscure “sex”) and AIDS and not address the simple fact that much of this is grounded in people enjoying their lives and their bodies. There are some great initiatives (like the Pleasure Project and the shop “Sh!”) but it is quite unusual to see programmes that start the conversation with pleasure rather than with the negative stuff such as violence, harassment, unplanned pregnancies, STIs etc. Of course it is important to call out the harms and the negative consequences of sex – but I don’t want young people growing up in a world that equates sex with negativity, or sees all women with HIV as abused victims.

Q: You have been both an ‘insider’ working at institutions like DFID and a campaigning ‘outsider.’ If you had your time again, would you strike the same balance between the two?

Diversity is the core of what matters to me and has been the core of what I do and how I have enjoyed my career. If I have been able to make change and have an impact then I think my “insider-outsider” role is a big part of why. At times it is almost as if I have been an envoy to either side. For example, I have enjoyed working with the Implementer group on the Global Fund Board (the Board seats occupied by NGOs and “recipient” countries) – sharing tips learned from being on a government delegation to the Board. In a similar way I enjoy sharing with various NGOs and campaigning groups my experience of what works to advocate to political leaders.

I think that I have been able to be more of service because of my experience in different sectors. The amazing Ministers that I worked with at DFID have told me that I was a “most unusual civil servant” (something that the UK Government seems to be actively recruiting these days!) I took it as a complement – and we were certainly able to deliver really big policy change that met the expectations of community groups as well as official government policy. It also meant finding unusual alliances – I got some flack for it, but I learned to talk with people from different political parties and I still do.

At the end of the day we are all different, and moving between worlds has suited me well, and suited my love for change and diversity. Whether or not this is right for you, the one key thing to remember is that no individual sector or approach can ever deliver alone. It is really clear that game changing only happens through partnership and bringing together different sectors and approaches.

Q: You have built up movements such as She Decides and led the World Health Organization’s Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health. When you move on from a senior position, how do you evaluate the progress that has been made for women in that organisation and in the sector more broadly?

It is so hard to evaluate the change that one organisation makes – and especially one individual. I have no formula – and I have great respect for M&E experts who know how to do this properly. My choices about moving on from roles are very personal, about aspects of my own journey and when it was right for me to get out of the way. I really do hope that I have always left organisations that have great futures and are continuing to make the change and have the impact they are designed to have.

With PMNCH I was able to work with a great team that supported the Partners through a huge time of change in the global development conversation, which ended up in a new global strategy that really put Adolescent Health at the centre of thinking – and really importantly, made sure that young women and men are now central to leadership in that space. I’m also really proud that young people and civil society have a central role to play in the new institutions that were formed at that time, especially the GFF (Global Financing Facility) – which didn’t exist when I joined PMNCH (and many of the partners were very suspicious about it).

And SheDecides has grown from zero to 150,000 in two short years. It is so good to see groups of political leaders, young people, community groups and so many other stakeholders uniting around the world to take action for that very simple – and very radical – idea that women and girls get to decide what happens to our own bodies! And I am just so pleased that the leadership is now as diverse as the movement. That’s how it should be.

Q: What can campaigners working to tackle the climate emergency learn from activists who changed the narrative around HIV/AIDS?

I think that many of us are so excited to see what is happening with campaigning around the climate emergency – and often quite humbled by it. I have been doing a lot of thinking about what women’s rights movements can learn from the AIDS crisis. I have always been committed to both and struck by the different pace of change – thinking about this is a big part of the book I’m currently working on. And then more recently I have met some of the incredible (young) leaders tackling the climate emergency, and I can see some striking similarities with the early response to HIV. For example, they do seem to have a really smart way of using the arts and creativity as well as evidence-based arguments. It makes a lot of sense to speak to both the heart and the head: appealing to emotions – through the arts, and impassioned language – as well as intellect – through facts and great research.

The other thing that I love is that many of the demands get described as “unreasonable”. Making audacious demands makes a lot of sense to me – telling it how it should be, and not accepting anything less. If you start small you get small results. 40 years ago we had no idea how bad the AIDS crisis would get – and we had no idea that such massive change (like the development and pricing of treatments – and the massive investment of global resources) would be possible so fast.

It is great to see that there are lots of insiders and outsiders from all different sectors involved in the climate emergency – lawyers, researchers, school students, public health experts, philanthropists, cultural leaders and “celebrities”. All of that diversity matters, and is why they are using so many of the different levers used in the HIV response – like UN meetings, public protest, etc. And of course there are risks that some other things we got “wrong” will be repeated here. I do worry at times that Climate is “flavour of the month” now in the way that AIDS was 20 years ago – we need to make sure that the energy and change is sustained across the board.

Q: We are delighted that your voice will be part of the Women in Dev conversation. What are you most looking forward to about the conference?

I’m really excited to and very much looking forward to the conference. You are developing it in a really inclusive way and I like that it is going to look at a broad span of issues and really embrace diversity. I am excited to be in an unapologetic space where we can but feminist thinking and leadership at the centre of all the debates.

I’m hoping our discussions will be truly transformational and help us all to gather energy and refocus on our ambitions. The SDGs take gender equality seriously – it’s great to meet a full decade before the goals are due to be achieved and get new ideas and solidarity to make change together. I’m glad that so many different people will be there from around the world. London is lucky to host this!

Q: She Decides was at the forefront of what became a global campaign to challenge the ‘gag rule’. How do you effectively bring women together?

Feminist Leadership means a lot to me – and that means being really inclusive. And unleashing the power that each individual and community has. I’m not much of a fan of the term “empowerment” – that sounds like “giving” power to someone. Rather I believe that the best way to bring people together to make change happen is to support them to unleash the power they already have.

And that means taking active steps to bring people together, to encourage them and to listen carefully to really diverse perspectives; it means being proactive about simple slogans like “no one left behind” – have we really taken steps to involve women with disabilities? Of all genders? Ages? Races etc? That SDG slogan “no one left behind” really does matter – it’s a reminder to put the perspectives and needs of “the last” first.

Concretely radical inclusivity means making changes constantly along the way so that you really listen and allow your great ideas to change to reflect what you hear from people who have really different perspectives. When we developed the “Manifesto” that is at the core of SheDecides we went over and over the words and the ideas with such an incredible range of people – from Ministers in Africa, to UN Leaders, NGO bosses, young people from all regions, to researchers and communication specialists. We could have easily written a document and asked people to give us their track changes but that would have not been authentic inclusion – they would have done the track changes and then forgotten about it. What is there now really picks up on people’s ambitions and desires and I hope many people see a bit of their talent and creativity in it. It is like the great African proverb “If you want to go fast, go alone;’ if you want to go far, go together”.