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In recent years, the following phrase has become popular, particularly in the context of sexual and reproductive health rights: “nothing about her without her”. In stark contrast to images of men sitting in boardrooms debating global gag rules, this is a rallying cry for greater inclusion of women and girls in decision-making processes that impact them.

It is not enough to place quotas, insist on recruiting more women and expect them to show up. Promoting women’s leadership needs to be cultivated and systems need to be in place to support them to step into these roles. Everything from teaching young girls effective negotiation and assertiveness skills, to providing childcare and other workplace policy measures to support breastfeeding women.

Indeed, for Nutrition International, including the lived reality of women is one of the principles highlighted in our Program Gender Equality Strategy. But how can we ensure that this goes beyond being an aspiration in a document to a reality on the ground? What does that look like in practice?

Below are five examples of concrete ways Nutrition International encourages women leaders within the context of nutrition programming:

1. Start young 

 Gender norms and roles are taught from a very young age, sometimes explicitly, but more often subtly and sometimes unconsciously passed on. Creating awareness among girls and boys to think critically about these norms is first and foremost a point where change can happen. This can be done in mixed group settings such as a classroom, as well as by establishing and supporting girls’ clubs in schools. In Ethiopia, adolescent girls were trained to be “motivator girls” to deliver nutrition education among their peers, increasing their leadership skills while becoming nutrition champions.

2. Increase agency among women within their existing context

One of the barriers preventing women from stepping into leadership roles can be linked to a lack of agency or low self confidence; being conditioned to not perceive or value leadership roles they may already be holding. I’ve heard many women discredit themselves from leadership as they do not think of themselves as leaders, when in fact, through their daily lives they are already exercising leadership all the time. We work to identify spaces where women are already gathering, such as the mother-to-mother support groups in the Philippines, and use them as platforms for further training. In this way we build capacity and confidence in addition to good nutrition know-how.

3. Promote workplace policies that enable women to thrive

In most contexts, when a couple decides to have a child, often it is the pregnant woman who experiences greater setbacks in the workplace and can find themselves having to choose between productive and reproductive roles. If a mother does return to work following the birth of a child, challenges can be exasperated particularly if the woman is still breastfeeding. There are many benefits which can help women thrive such as paid maternity leave, breastfeeding spaces, and incentives for men to take paternity or parental leave. In Kenya, Nutrition International has supported county nutrition plans that prioritize breastfeeding to make it more feasible for working moms. We need to continue to reduce disparities and create a supportive environment for women to progress in their career trajectory.

4. Building skills of the female labour force

One of the key stakeholder groups in our nutrition programs are frontline health workers. In many countries these are positions held by women. Providing training to these workers to take on additional responsibilities has given them greater visibility in communities. One example of this is the salt iodization program in Pakistan. With newfound skillsets, the door of opportunity can open wider for women to move into roles as managers and supervisors and also step into non-traditional roles as lab technicians and food safety officers. Once this foundation is laid, we can return to look at quotas and devise a targeted approach to increase the number of women leaders.

5. Recruit women for leadership roles

 To ensure women have a voice at the table within decision-making platforms they need to first have a seat at the table. This doesn’t have to be only in national political contexts. There are plenty of spaces at all levels where women can exercise leadership: in health facility governance mechanisms, parent-teacher forums and other school governance committees, as members of boards and in management roles in the workplace. For organizations like Nutrition International, women play a key role in leadership positions as Country Directors and Regional Managers, as well as throughout our organization.

International Women’s Day is a moment each year to reflect on the gains and obstacles in realizing gender equality. Women and men have fundamentally different lived experience for many reasons, including patriarchal social norms, reproductive health and associated gender roles. We need the participation of all, both men and women, to encourage and elevate female voices and experiences.

As Malala Yousafzai says, “We cannot succeed when half of us are held back.” If we want to ensure that our nutrition programs will create a stronger and healthier next generation, we need to address gender inequalities in the fabric of our programming. We need to value female voices and welcome the participation of women to influence policy, create responsive programs and lay the foundation that will realize these aspirations.