Women in Global Health launches Switzerland chapter

WGH members during a meet and greet at the World Health Assembly 2022 in Geneva (Facebook: Women in Global Health)

The international network of women in global health has 40 chapters across the world.

Six years ago, global health expert Dr Ilona Kickbusch sent a tweet aimed at sparking a much-needed conversation around boosting the presence of women in global health.

That single tweet ended up doing much more – giving birth to a global network to do just that. Set up in 2015, Women in Global Health (WGH) on Monday inaugurated its 41st chapter in Switzerland.

WGH is an international network of women –- professionals working across the spectrum –- in the global health sector. The network consists of academics, activists, doctors, nurses, public health professionals, community health workers, pharmacists, and so on, working together to advance gender equality in global health.

Monday’s inauguration was marked by an interactive webinar with women experts in the sector sharing their experiences and discussing agenda items for the chapter, with Dr Roopa Dhatt, executive director of WGH, beginning the event by sharing how it all started. 

“In global health, there were too many conversations happening without women. Ilona started a hashtag (WGH100) to say that there's no excuse for having all-male discussions and all-male decision making when there's so many talented women working in global health,” she said. 

Dhatt added that there was a lot of energy from around the world due to the tweet. “So many women that spoke up and nominated themselves nominated their colleagues that that list went from being 100 to 200 to 300.” 

It helped that the momentum was maintained at the World Health Assembly gathering at Geneva later that year when many women experts and leaders present there decided that WGH can be a movement for collective action rather than an NGO. 

Switzerland, especially Geneva, occupies an enviable position in the global health architecture as the home for several international organisations like the World Health Organisation, The Global Fund and also as a pharma hub.  

“There are so many actors in Switzerland including the government that are key in global health and broader development. These are all opportunities for the Swiss chapter to really engage and bring these diverse perspectives together,” she added.  

The Swiss  chapter, based in Geneva, will be led by Gabrielle Landry Chappuis and Carmen Sant-Fruchtman, (co-chairs of WGH Switzerland).  Its work will focus on four main areas: gender equity in leadership, supporting young women professionals, gender in Swiss health policy making and gender in research and development in Switzerland. Monday’s event was attended by over 120 participants and as of Tuesday, the WGH Switzerland forum has over 80 registrations. 

Lens of power and privilege

Dr Kickbusch, founder of the Global Health Centre at the Geneva Graduate Institute and a board member of WGH, said that her understanding about power and politics propelled her  to find allies that would help advance feminist narratives in global health. “When I find something's not going the way it should, I try to find people who think the same way and try to find some mechanism to create the dynamics to move things forward.”

A recent report by UN Women highlighted that only 24 per cent of the global Covid-19 task forces members were women and women’s share in leading a Covid-19 task force was only 16 per cent as against men enjoying 78 per cent of the total leadership positions within these task forces. 

Pointing to the implicit gender bias, Dr Samia Hurst-Majno, a bioethicist at the University of Geneva, said that research shows there is no effective way of countering such biases in ourselves. “One of the things that the research from my team shows is that there are circumstances where we can limit other effects on our behaviour. And I think that this is what we have to shoot for. This is where the network comes in,” she added. 

The task ahead is daunting, she said; that’s why it’s important to have a network working towards the same cause. 

“It is really through this community that we can understand these aspects concerning women and global health and talk about doing things differently,” Dhatt added.

“Often that includes applying a power and privilege lens, and looking at these multiple identities where women exist, their influence and power, and their ability to transform their environment. So that is something unique that a movement creates space for.”

Way forward

Speaking about what to expect out of a network like WGH, Ava Duberset-Epiney, a medical student, said that several women’s health issues are still considered a taboo and therefore there is a pressing need to address that by making information more accessible.

“It will be awesome to have more good resources for women who maybe can't easily go to a doctor or won't go for any reason. When they go on the internet, they may not find the best information or worse, find wrong information. So I think knowledge is power,” she said.

Another participant, Dr Sonja Merten, head of the society, gender and health unit at Swiss Tropical and Public Health institute, said that in order for public health interventions to be successful, local knowledge is crucial. “I think we really need to also move from ‘research on people’ to ‘research with people’. We need to engage with our communities, involve different stakeholders including the target people of public health intervention.”

Participants also chimed in with their suggestions on how to best support young women professionals starting their careers in global health and how to engage policymakers to integrate sex and gender in health policy. 

“We are going to follow up and discuss these workstreams. These are definitely not the final list of our priorities. This is just a starting point of where we go now because we have identified people who work in these streams. But, we probably will add additional ones as we go along,” Dr Michaela Told, a member of the core group of WGH Switzerland told Geneva Solutions.