As the world marks International Women’s Day, I wanted to take the opportunity to celebrate my own heroes – the many women I’ve met who have reached out to help others across the globe.
From CEOs of global companies to struggling mums in developing countries, all have made a lifelong impression through their courage, compassion and their desire to do, and be, better.
They have all confirmed my belief in the power that people have to change lives. I have been lucky enough to work in more than 20 countries and meet mothers, midwives, health workers and doctors as part of that work.
I have been to grand private hospitals in Singapore and Brasil and publicly-funded clinics in Sweden, Australia, Canada where thankfully midwifery is alive and well.
I have also been to rural clinics where patients had to sleep in the courtyard and desperately overstretched hospitals in slums where, just to get in the door, there are hour-long queues. And I have been to antenatal clinics where every other mother is being treated for cocaine addiction.
But all these places have one thing in common: the amazing women who make them work. One of these women is Aparna Hedge, a doctor in India who felt compelled to set up the Armaan maternal and child health charity after witnessing the needless death of a mother and her baby.
She decided there and then that she had to find a way to stop such tragedies and, in a world where there is often greater access to mobile phones than clean water, started to develop a mobile messaging service for pregnant women.
That is where Thrive came in. Aparna took us to the slums in Mumbai so we could meet the women there and see first-hand the problems they face. Together we developed the mMitra project, creating weekly stage-based information and support messages for these women during pregnancy and for the first year of their baby’s life.
As a result, these women now understand why they need to take iron tablets, can recognise the danger signs in pregnancy and know when to have their baby vaccinated.
Aparna has transformed the lives of millions of women and babies. But creating and sending messages to millions of women is not cheap. And this is where my next female hero comes in. Alice Lin Fabiano is Global Director at Johnson & Johnson (J&J), Global Community Impact.
Alice organised the funding for all our mobile messaging projects in six countries. She works very much behind the scenes, but every project needs an Alice to raise the money that enables change.
In a previous role Alice raised $100 million for women entrepreneurs around the globe. Now she is leading the team at J&J to drive strategies which champion people on the front lines who are at the heart of delivering care.
I have been lucky enough to meet many more women changing others’ lives. But often those making a difference are the many anonymous women taking every day action to support or even save others, but who never get celebrated.
The mentor mothers who work for mothers2mothers in ten countries are among the women I am most in awe of.
These mothers are HIV positive and they support other women who are newly diagnosed. They help them cope with the news, sit with them while they tell their families and support them to live healthy lives. Every time I meet a mentor mother I am amazed by their skills, their knowledge and their kindness.
My most important learning from meeting mothers in many countries is this: everywhere there are individual women who are doing everything they can for their families under extremely difficult circumstances. ‘Ordinary’ women like the mother-in-law I spoke to in Mumbai.
In India women eat last, even when they’re pregnant. If the food has run out after the men have eaten, the women simply go hungry. But many families in the slums listen to our audio messages on speaker phone.
This was the only reason my heroic mother-in-law learnt that her pregnant daughter-in-law needed more food. So now this grandmother-to-be hides food to make sure her daughter-in-law has enough.
She defies cultural norms and risks the wrath of the men of the family, because knowledge has empowered her.
Emotional support matters too and engaging with it can be crucial. I spoke to a maid who discovered she was among the 30% of women in South Africa to be HIV positive when she went to her first antenatal clinic.
Far from family, without a partner and impoverished, she signed up for our programme because, in her words: “The messages make me feel someone cares.”
One second-time mother tragically told me her first baby died because she didn’t know that the signs of labour meant her baby was coming, so stayed at home.
But then she said: “This time it will be OK because my messages will tell me when to go to hospital.”
And they will, because my team of women and mothers wrote those messages. It is both amazing and gratifying to see that they make a real difference.