Katja Iversen is the CEO of Women Deliver – a leading global advocate for investment in the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women, with a specific focus on maternal, sexual and reproductive health and rights. Iversen, an internationally recognized expert on development, advocacy and communications, has more than 20 years of experience working in NGOs, corporates and United Nation agencies. Previously, she held the position as Chief of Strategic Communication and Public Advocacy with UNICEF, a position she came to after almost six years of leading the team responsible for advocacy and communication on reproductive health and MDG 5 at UNFPA. She holds a master’s degree in communications, bachelor’s degree in public administration and certificates in management, conflict resolution and international development. Iversen has worked in global health for more than a decade and has an extensive network within the UN, development communities and global media. She is a health adviser to the Clinton Global Initiative and on the CSO consultative group to the World Bank.
Q: Please tell me about the work that Women Deliver is doing, and what its goals and objectives are now and into the future?
A: We are an advocacy organisation that works on health rights and the well-being of girls and woman with a particular focus on gender equality and maternal and sexual reproduction health and rights, because, as we say, that is the bedrock of development. It goes beyond the individual, to families, communities and nations, and we deliver advocates to increase investment, and by investments we mean political, financial and programmatic investment in girls and women in various issues. Women Deliver is renowned and slightly famous for being able to translate technical issues into something that can speak both to the heart and the mind and generate action. We talk about some of the broader issues, for example, safe motherhood, but make it relevant and non-technical; we get out of those technical bubbles, we get into when discussions happen and take it into the global policy stage. We also work to identify the influencers who can make the change happen for girls and women on the ground.
Q: Having worked for many years in the area of maternal health, what do you see as the major issues currently facing women and threatening a safe motherhood experience?
A: If we look at the world right now, it is evident that there is a bigger gap between the haves and the have-nots, a gap between who will survive and who will thrive, who will have a good health experience and who will not. We see it in the health systems, where they are failing and where they are working. Where the health system is failing, failing its people, which is what is threatening the safe motherhood experience. There is also a direct correlation between a woman’s status in society and the maternal health outcome and how safe motherhood is. It’s about gender equality and it’s about women’s economic empowerment. When women are economically empowered they get better care. And this is linked to the rights aspect, such as do women have access to contraception or don’t they? We also see that the number of women dying in childbirth has plateaued, but we also we see that it is more and more young women. It’s not just about the clinical experience surrounding childbirth – it’s also about the woman’s ability to have her rights, to have access to family planning, to have access to proper food and not be the last one to eat whatever is left over, issues like that. It is a terrible tragedy that the gap is growing and that it is plateauing but it’s also great to see how we are looking at maternal health in a broader lens, looking at the woman as a woman and not just as a mother giving birth.
Q: Can you tell me what improvements you have seen in the area of maternal rights? Where do you see the gaps in maternal rights as they stand: is it because women are unaware or because of lack of support from society or Government?
A: We have seen tremendous progress, but we have also seen a plateauing progress. If you look at data for the past number of years, we have seen progress in the health services, great progress in midwifery, much better skilled birth attendants and it’s getting better, we have seen that broader awareness. When I started this work, the thinking was that we need three things: skilled birth attendants, after care and family planning – we thought that was all we needed, and didn’t consider the broader perspective.
Other things need to be taken into consideration as well, and there is great progress happening on that. It’s awful to see how maternal fatalities are growing in pockets of the United States, and actually match some countries that you normally wouldn’t compare them with. You really see how it follows poverty and access, and it’s devastating to see how hard adolescent girls are hit. Dying in childbirth is one of the main causes of death for girls between 15 and 19… they haven’t even started to live yet and there they are dying because they can’t get the care they need, either because of the stigma or because of unsafe abortions. I’m really sad to see how abortion is still such a divider and we do know how safe abortion can save so many lives. It’s one of the major killers, and its sorry to see how often men can decide over women that way, I know it’s not always men, but why is it?
Q: You have been described as a “leading global advocate for investment in the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women”. What form should this investment take and what solutions can it provide?
A: Well first and foremost we need to look at the whole woman and not just as disease or body part – it’s not a disease to be pregnant. It’s that mindset we need to change. If you look at specific investments, we need to invest in family planning within health systems. We need to invest in the ability to decide whether or not we can become pregnant, because we still have 225 million women who cannot make that decision because they don’t use modern contraception. This leads to unplanned pregnancy and a higher risk of maternal death. It’s about investment in affordable quality care, investment in prevention screening and treatment, so you can foresee what’s coming, for issues such as hypertension and diabetes in pregnancy. It’s important to have a people friendly, or a woman-friendly health system. We need health workers that help, we need a health system that can deliver for women, when women need it to deliver, so it’s about training, retention and education of health workers too.
Q: In relation to the Sustainable Development Goals, what specific measures will need to be taken in order to achieve them across the developed world?
A: For me it’s important to focus not just on mortality but also on morbidity. So maternal health is more than maternal mortality, safe motherhood is more than maternal mortality, more than death. It’s also not rocket science, we know what works, so we need to focus on how it can be done, and here’s what we can do. We have to focus on solutions.
It’s important that sustainable development goals are also universal; this is not about developing countries, this is not about pointing fingers at the poor, this is about everybody. We still have high maternal fatality numbers in certain areas of rich countries, and that needs to be taken seriously. So getting that indication system and accountability system where we measure and everybody has to report I am sure will play a big part in the progress forward.
We need to be aware that if we don’t keep this on the top of the agenda, the attention and money will go other places, so even though we have seen progress, it is so important to say and to underscore that this is not done, we are not finished. Solutions, solutions, solutions – that’s how we energise and inspire and get action to fly.
Q: Our theme for Safe Motherhood Week this year is: Motherhood is our power to shape the future. It is everyone’s responsibility to make it safe. What are your thoughts on this statement?
A: Women deliver so much more than babies and when mother dies, there is a negative ripple effect that goes way beyond her. It affects the family, the children and the community, it’s bad and its costs money. If you flip that – when you prevent maternal death there is a positive economic ripple effect as well. Dead mothers don’t work; they can’t take care of their families. So it is important for me that it is not only a rights issue, and I don’t look at it with only economic glasses but that is often what can convince the ministers of finance who have to allocate money. It’s a rights issue and an economic issue and if we, as advocates can place it as such, society takes it much more seriously. There has been a tendency that when it’s a woman’s issue, it is degraded and devalued. But research shows that if we had gender equality, we would improve the world GDP by more than double digits, and that’s not pocket money. So for society it is both a rights thing and an economic thing. It’s a win/win.
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