Business as Unusual? Women Deliver 2016 Conference

By May 17, 2016News

By Sarah Chynoweth, Ph.D., Vice President, Health

“This is business as unusual,” announced Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen during the opening ceremony of the largest gathering on women and girls’ health and rights in more than a decade, the Women Deliver 2016 Conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

And in many ways it is. With more than 5,000 delegates from 168 countries and 200+ sessions, Women Deliver is leading the charge. Abortion is (finally) front and center, with a plenary panel and a number of sessions exploring this life-saving issue. Climate change and the Zika virus are hot topics. Adolescent health and wellbeing are also at the forefront, and youth delegates comprise a whopping 20% of total participants. Their participation brings renewed energy and fresh perspectives to the discussion.

Accountability—historically perhaps the least sexy issue in global health—has also been brought to the fore: I counted ten sessions with accountability in the title. No amount of funding, training, supplies, and guidelines will move the needle on women and girls’ health without meaningful accountability processes in place.

But one key issue has received scant attention at Women Deliver: newborn health. With neonatal deaths now accounting for 44% of under-five mortality, newborn health was arguably the most neglected area within the health MDGs. At this conference, a well-received session on stillborn and preterm births drew a large and engaged audience. Yet beyond that, newborn-related issues were raised sporadically in other sessions, which were largely dominated by maternal health. I’m consistently surprised at how little attention is given to this issue within the reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health space. I’m left to wonder—with a hat tip to Rosenfield and Maine—“Where is the N in RMNCH?”

Throughout the sessions, across topics, Women Deliver has also highlighted the importance of data and evidence-driven approaches. Turning that spotlight inward, how do we measure the impact of this conference? The resources, both human and financial, that have flowed into this undertaking are immense. There are clear benefits to this convening, but is it worth the millions of dollars and thousands of hours? Maybe, but how do we measure the effect?

Despite the “business as unusual” theme, few of the sessions were groundbreaking. This is not a bad thing—in fact, it reflects how far we’ve come in the last few decades. We know what to do; let’s get back to work.