Leadership in maternal & newborn health: Dr Tewabech Bishaw
published 14 November 2012
published 14 November 2012
“The Millennium Development Goals bring everyone together working towards a common goal.”
Dr Tewabech Bishaw
Dr Tewabech Bishaw is an international leader in maternal, child and public health and was recently nominated for the Ethiopian Women of Excellence prize in recognition of her many achievements.
“My passion for public health started at a young age when I visited a local health centre [in Ethiopia] and saw people coming not only for curative care but also to prevent ill health: women were there to receive advice on safe childbirth and care practices. I realized the good that public health centres could do for communities.”
Tewabech’s drive to serve communities and determination to achieve equity led her to study public health, overcoming many gender barriers along the way. Tewabech worked her way up from leading local and regional health centre teams to developing and directing national maternal and child health programmes with UNICEF in Ethiopia, India, Namibia and Botswana.
Tewabech’s determination to overcome inequities started in the home.
“I was born and brought up in a loving and caring family [in southwest Ethiopia]. Our parents always told us that education, hard work…and doing your best are important. Unusually for the time, my parents were supportive of equal opportunities for boys and girls. We were told education was the key to liberate us from constraints and poverty. Education, confidence and courage would take us where we wanted to go.”
Dr Tewabech Bishaw on her understanding of equity and human rights starting in the home
Throughout her life, Tewabech has pushed against gender barriers: she fought against the initial resistance from Gondar College of Public Health, Ethiopia, to allow her to study public health; they were worried she might not be able to lead health teams as well as her male colleagues. Tewabech persisted and was eventually accepted onto the course and went on to lead health teams across Ethiopia and internationally.
“Our society is a male dominated society – in many of my classes I was the only woman, at work I was often the only woman. It gave me the opportunity to express my potential so others could emulate it. I am just an average human being from an average household who was encouraged and stimulated to go as far as I can…Because of this love, care and guidance and God given strength it was possible to face any challenge.”
Tewabech, although officially ‘retired’, is currently President of the Ethiopian Public Health Association and founder and Managing Director of the Alliance for Brain Gain and Innovative Development (ABIDE), a charity that aims to address the shortage of human resources in Ethiopia by facilitating and increasing opportunities for brain gain. Recognising the importance of networking and negotiation skills, she is working with partners, stakeholders and the Ethiopian government to maintain the balance between appreciating the inputs of individual organisations’ to improving health, whilst acknowledging that these individual contributions are only part of the whole.
“No country, especially a developing country, can afford to meet the needs [of the people], but a country can develop a good strategy, engage with the community, professionals societies the private sector and other development partners and work collectively…. [Health achievements are] not because of community x or donor y so the counting of individual credit is not right.”
Her advice for future leaders? Work together confidence towards achieving common goals for equity, quality and participation.
“Even countries like Ethiopia with high maternal and newborn mortality have a strong desire to reach the Millennium Development Goals…There are many challenges but we need to move in that direction with focus, full conviction and unity of purpose and mind from the communities, households, government, development partners. The great thing about the Millennium Development Goals is that they bring everyone, including developing and developed countries, together working towards a common goal.”
Dr Tewabech Bishaw on the importance of all health institutions to work together towards a common goal.
Dr Tewabech Bishaw is one of the founders and the President of the Ethiopian Public Health Association, Secretary General of African Federation of Public Health Associations and founder and Managing Director of the Alliance for Brain Gain and Innovative Development (ABIDE), a charity that aims to address the shortage of human resources in Ethiopia by facilitating and increasing opportunities for brain gain. Tewabech is also a member of the Executive Committee of the World Federation of Public Health Associations and a member of the International Board of Governors of the African Medical Research Foundation (AMREF). Tewabech studied Public Health in Gondar, Ethiopia and, after leading local and regional health teams in rural and urban settings went to California, USA to complete a Masters in maternal and child health and Doctorate in Health Sciences, at Linda Loma University. Returning to Ethiopia, Tewabech played a key role in initiating the National Expanded Program on Immunization, established the National Maternal and Child Health Services Coordinating Office and developed and implemented a 5-year national strategy with UNICEF, World Health Organisation (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency (SIDA). Tewabech joined UNICEF in 1986 to develop and implement targeted maternal and child health programmes, public health strategies and HIV/AIDS prevention and care in Ethiopia, India, Namibia and Botswana. In 2012, Tewabech was nominated for the Ethiopia Women of Excellence award in recognition of her contribution to improving public health worldwide.