The Personal is Professional: Rethinking Women’s Health, Remembering Mine
Late last year, in Beyond the Sum of our (Body) Parts: a Call to Action from Women and Girls, more than one million women and girls from around the world shared what they want most for their health and well-being. Top answers included universal health coverage (428,318 women); investment in women’s ideas, enterprise, and potential (313,872); and the most basic of necessities, such as food and rest (225,178).
Close behind were requests for infrastructure—clean water, sanitation, and roads (118,193); mental well-being (95,950); and freedom from harm (82,004). Finally, rounding out women’s wants, were demands for increased power and autonomy (81,000), and sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, child health and rights (SRMNCH) (69,868).
Five years ago, as part of the What Women Want initiative, another million women and girls shared what they wanted specifically for their reproductive and maternal healthcare. Both times, I was surprised—and admittedly disappointed—by what women had to say. Having dedicated my career to expanding access to contraception, in 2019, I was so sure it would be the top answer. Rather, it was respect and dignity, followed by water, sanitation, and hygiene.
In 2023, dismayed and distressed by the dramatic rollback of fundamental rights and the widening disparities in maternal health, I desperately hoped sexual and reproductive health (SRH) would take center stage on the list of what women want. While a significant number of women still cited it, SRH not being the headline felt like a punch in the gut. In these times, sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) advocates need all the support and backing we can get.
My first instinct was to minimize the million responses because they were the result of crowdsourcing—not traditional research. To downplay participating women as ‘non-experts’ who were not as aware or as well-informed. But rather than react, I forced myself to reflect. I pondered my own answer to the question ‘what do I want most for my health and well-being’. An answer distinct from my professional aims, moral values, and even societal hopes.
I did the self-care thing. The ‘selfish’ thing. The thing that, in my world, is cheered and encouraged often right up until a woman actually does it. I thought about just me, about what would make my life easier. At first, it was something, anything to address menopausal symptoms. Waking up irritable and drenched in sweat three days in a row, both sets of sheets in the wash, I scanned holiday sales to buy more. Even working from, and with a machine at home, my laundry can’t quite keep up with the demands of my changing body.
Then I learned my mom’s neurologist was moving to Montana. My mom was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s last year. It’s been an uphill battle sorting her providers; neurology, psychiatry, endocrinology to name a few. I thought I’d finally done it. I’m even in the process of moving to South Carolina, so I can be near her while she stays close to them. Astonishingly, compared to relocating her care to Washington DC, uprooting my entire life is the lighter lift. As I look for another neurologist to take her insurance—few and far between and each with a longer waiting list than the next—comprehensive, compassionate, and coordinated elder care is all that I want.
I am grateful I can help my mom, but it comes at a cost—financially, physically, emotionally. As her Alzheimer’s progresses, she increasingly lives out of time—existing more in the past than the present. I am her inadvertent time travel companion. Revisiting places I’d rather not. Distant moments and experiences feeling uncomfortably close as yesterday. I am ten. I am fifteen. I am twenty. And suddenly what I want morphs again.
I write today from the height of privilege—a CEO broadcasting her menopause symptoms, without consequences, notwithstanding a little side eye and few whispers—but this was not always the case. Growing up, my mom had a significant mental health disorder (still does), we lived in an abusive home, and when we would leave that home, we were often temporarily homeless. We slept in garages, campers, and horse trailers to wait out violent storms both literal and metaphorical. We relied on the Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program to feed ourselves. A program that also provided antenatal care for my mom when she was unexpectedly pregnant with my little sister.
Still, I was lucky. What little money my mom had, she spent on nice clothes for me and my sisters. You may judge her for this, questioning her priorities and decision-making, but she understood it for what it was. Armor that—along with my skin color—protected and privileged me. I was also educated. We were often without a safe place to live—but always in a good school district. No matter what was going on, my mom took me to school, even when she couldn’t get herself to work, up until I found a stable and permanent home with my biological dad and stepmom. My mom never found that—not until I was able to buy her a house a few years ago.
What I want now is what I wanted then; what a million women want. The handholds—housing, schooling, food stamps, health services, SRH and otherwise—that I used to climb where I am. Handholds that aren’t always there for other women. Handholds not talked about enough as part of women’s health.
What women want is not uniform, let alone singular or fixed, but taken together the responses in Beyond the Sum of our (Body) Parts: a Call to Action from Women and Girls are telling. Women want social and systems change—even if they don’t call it that. Women inherently understand—because they live it—that there is no SRHR without universal health coverage (UHC) or economic empowerment, just as there is no UHC or economic empowerment without sexual and reproductive health and rights.
I know it and have lived it too. Yet I have professionally failed to always act like it. I owe women, my mom, myself an apology. Working in a sector where success and funding are mainly driven and defined by siloes and quick wins, I pushed my own innate knowledge and lived experiences down, when I should have been pushing harder for development actors to work across lines that divide our communities and divide women into parts.
Continuing to approach women’s health according to single-issue programs or politics is a mistake. It undermines women’s overall well-being, our interconnected struggles for a more equitable, healthy, and just world, and SRHR. I worry those who fight every day for abortion rights, to save women from dying in childbirth—me included—are pushing away our biggest allies—women. Why? Because women are tired of having to tell us that for many of them—like it was for my mom—the daily choice debate is between hunger, heat, or hurt.
In the US, with public safety nets for food, shelter, and education having been long eroded—with not enough people speaking up or speaking out about it—we shouldn’t have been surprised that Roe vs Wade—the Supreme Court decision protecting a women’s right to abortion across the country—was come for and effectively dismantled too. Our opposition tends to act on the connections better than we do.
In South Carolina, where abortion has been all but outright banned, so many women are appalled by what is happening, but can’t miss work to travel for an affordable, timely abortion if the need arises, let alone take time off to advocate for the cause—especially when the cause hasn’t always valued their contributions or perspectives.
Beyond the Sum of our (Body) Parts: a Call to Action from Women and Girls lays the foundation for a holistic women’s health and well-being agenda. Let’s not make women tell us again. Let’s fight for nutrition and mental health interventions as hard as we do abortion, contraception, kangaroo mother care. Let’s make hunger, shelter, education, violence prevention, aging all women’s health issues–and all women’s health issues political issues. We won’t lose traction, attention, or our jobs. We will gain an army.
Real, enduring change is not made through singular interventions or innovations or by a few experts, geniuses, or leaders. It’s not measured by moving the needle on select individual indicators. It’s made by movements that are a mosaic of faces, the threads of their lives, and the weaving together of many ideas and solutions.
Real, enduring change is felt in the seismic shifts to our systems and societies caused by millions of raised voices and stomping feet. When the tremors stop, we rebuild. On foundations of gender and racial parity. We carve handholds for everyone, handholds we climb together, women and women’s health allies showing the way.
This article was originally published by Kristy Kade on 14th January 2024.
WID Network Leader Kristy Kade, the CEO of White Ribbon Alliance, is a distinguished advocacy strategist with over a decade of experience in leading transformative initiatives in public health and development. Her journey began at White Ribbon Alliance in September 2017, where her leadership has been pivotal in advocating for women’s rights, health, and well-being. Kristy’s approach, focusing on grassroots involvement and policy change, has had a profound impact across diverse regions, including the US, Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and Asia.
Prior to her current role, Kristy honed her expertise at PATH as the Director of Policy and Advocacy, managing an extensive portfolio of projects in over ten countries, and at Pathfinder International as Associate Director of Advocacy and Public Policy. Her work spans several critical areas, such as maternal, newborn, and child health, HIV, TB, malaria, family planning, and more. Kristy is known for her skill in building coalitions, integrating strategies across sectors, and empowering communities at all levels – from local to global.
She has championed the “What Women Want” initiative, emphasizing the importance of directly involving women and girls in health policymaking. Her commitment to this cause has led to significant advocacy victories and global recognition of the need to centre women’s voices in health discussions. Kristy’s leadership continues to inspire and mobilize resources and support for women’s health worldwide.