Nothing we do is in a vacuum: ICRW interviews Champion of Change Jill Sheffield

Article Date

06 June 2016

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

On May 17, ICRW conferred the 2016 Champion for Change Lifetime Achievement Award on Jill Sheffield for her enduring dedication to women’s reproductive rights and lasting contributions to the improvement of maternal health across the world.

In this interview after the award ceremony at Women Deliver 2016 in Copenhagen, Sheffield talks about the importance of partnerships and good data to build a global movement for women and girls. 

Here we are at the fourth Women Deliver conference, and each year it seems bigger than and more comprehensive than the year before. What do you think drives its success? What has been the most significant change since the first meeting?

Part of it is momentum and part of it is our staff. The other thing that we have done is that we have deliberately chosen large, visible venues. Before Women Deliver, meetings on women’s issues were always cheaply done. We wanted to be in a well-lit, bright place where important things happen to show that these issues are important, that they have value. More than 80 percent of participants at this year’s conference were new. They were new people for whom this was new thinking.

Women Deliver began as a fairly modest conference to elevate maternal mortality and morbidity on the global agenda, and we did that. But we know that the surefire way to prevent maternal death is contraception, and the best shot at increasing contraception is education. Yet keeping girls in school requires sanitation services, economic stability in families and ending the culture of child marriage. Nothing we do as development professionals we do in a vacuum. We need to be as nuanced as the people we touch.

What role does research and data have to play in building a global movement for women and girls?

The fact is we can’t make progress without data. Research — reliable, focused facts — is invaluable to women’s and girls’ lives, and ICRW has helped to uncover those facts. Unmet need [for health services] statistics help us put our global problems into context. Now we need even more data to influence and accomplish change both to policies and to practice. Then you can really tell people, “If you do this, then that will happen.” Numbers are so important to influencing governments who have so little resources devoted to social issues, and it’s essential that they see that there is a significant return on these investments.

Since the first meeting in 2007, Women Deliver has made youth participation a priority. How has having young people at the table or onstage — rather than just in the audience — affected your perspective on this work?

Youth are explicitly central to our work. 42 percent of our budget is dedicated to ensuring youth participation. It has changed the conversation and that’s what we wanted. We wanted that dynamism and also that difficulty, that challenge to the status quo.

Over the course of your career, you have seen important advances in women’s health care: expansion of effective family planning methods, improvement in maternal health care and access to HIV prevention and treatment, just to name a few. Looking ahead to the next 40 years, what do you think will be our next challenge and/or opportunity to improve women’s and girls’ health and wellbeing?

We have made a great deal of progress in the past 40 years, there’s no question. But we need to make a whole lot more. The strategies we use need to be linked together to make progress, and we can’t do it alone. Partnerships are essential, and not just across sectors. We need intergenerational partnerships based on respect for the contributions and experiences of adolescents, young adults and seasoned professionals. We need partnerships between women and men, and between people in offices and people on the ground. We need to reach out to the private sector, to government workers and to the media — people we don’t often work with. We need partnerships with the girls and women who are affected by our work and who shape our work. It’s their world and they hold the solutions more than we do. We use meetings like this one to expand knowledge, to boost courage and to focus energy, perhaps to help do things differently.

Our next challenge is the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals, being very specific about the things we want them to do and to measure. The new SDGs call for integrated development; I hope it becomes more than a buzzword.