Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Q&A with Jane Cottingham

23 May 2009

Jane Cottingham's interest in the health and rights of women began in her early twenties (in the late 1960s, early '70s), when she read Germaine Greer's feminist treatise, The Female Eunuch.

Shortly thereafter she moved to Geneva, and decided to set up a "consciousness-raising" group for women. Around the same time (in 1976) Jane spearheaded an initiative to fundraise and publish a bulletin containing information by, for and about women. Isis-Women's International Information and Communication Service, named after the ancient Egyptian goddess, became the hub of an international women's information network, and she served as the organization's Director for 11 years.

The first issue of Isis Bulletin published testimony from women around the world about "crimes" against them, which had been given orally at the "International Tribunal on Crimes Against Women" organized by the women’s movement in Brussels in March 1976. These ranged from economic crimes, such as unequal pay for equal work, to health-related crimes such as forced sterilization and rape. In this and subsequent issues of the Bulletin, health and violence emerged as universal issues in the lives of the women across the globe, despite their economical and cultural differences.

In the 1980s, Jane was hired by the Adolescent Health and Development Programme for her first assignment with WHO. Her task was to research and prepare a fact sheet on adolescent sexual and reproductive health for the technical discussions on "The Health of Youth" theme of the 1989 World Health Assembly. This led to the landmark adoption of a resolution calling on Member States to develop programmes to meet adolescent health needs, and stimulated action on adolescent health across the Organization, including at regional level.

Towards the end of that decade, Jane came to the conclusion that to make a meaningful difference, she would need to learn more about public health. On the advice of a friend, she applied to the Harvard School of Public Health, and was granted a full scholarship to complete a Masters.

Upon graduation, Jane was asked by WHO to be the rapporteur for the first “dialogue” between women’s health advocacy groups from around the world and scientists involved in WHO’s Special Programme on Human Reproduction (HRP). In response to the recommendations from that meeting, she then coordinated a series of dialogue meetings with policy-makers, researchers and women’s health advocacy groups in developing countries. Some of the key issues that emerged from the "Dialogues on Women's Perspectives" related to ethics in research, and the importance given by women to further development of barrier methods of contraception in light of the emerging HIV epidemic.

Since 1991, Jane has been the Technical Officer for Women's Perspectives and Gender Issues in WHO's Department of Reproductive Health and Research (RHR), and is now on the cusp of retirement.

In her 18 years with RHR, she has worked closely with the Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development (CAH), as well as a range of women's health groups, policy-makers and scientists to ensure that women's rights and gender perspectives, including adolescents, are integrated into the reproductive health research agenda.

A short series of questions and answers follows.

Q. What do you think enabled you to do this kind of work?
I think it was a combination of having a passion for these issues and being in the right place at the right time. There were a lot of important processes going on in my early career, from the designation of the first International Women's Year in 1975 to the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. The leadership in WHO at the time was very supportive, which was also enormously helpful. More recently, the Millennium Development Goals have provided new architecture -- in particular the target 5.B to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015, and critically, one of the indicators for measuring progress on that target is the adolescent birth rate.

Q. What are you most proud to look back on in your career?
One of the most important things I did during my time at WHO was to help set up the Gender and Rights Advisory Panel in 1996, which is still going today. The Panel reviews all aspects of the work done by the Department of Reproductive Health and Research, with attention to gender equity and equality as well as human rights. It also proposes mechanisms by which gender and rights concerns can be brought to bear across the Department, and examines and gives guidance to the Department on key concepts currently under debate in the area of sexual and reproductive health.

Q. What would you consider to be the greatest achievements of the public health community in terms of gender and sexual and reproductive rights?
Achieving widespread access to contraception has been a major step forward. There's also been a lot done to get the voices of women and NGOs that represent them heard among international organizations and policy makers more widely. Access to information on sexual and reproductive health is much better than it was previously, though there's still a lot of work to be done to ensure adolescent girls and boys have access to the information and services they need.

Q. What do you think should be the focus going forward?
There's no one thing to be done that will solve all the problems facing adolescent sexual and reproductive health, but a key focus should be on testing and rolling out new interventions that involve communities. Another critical area that needs to be at the fore is the examination of laws and policies relating to access to information and services for sexual and reproductive health, to see whether they are in line with human rights commitments -- this is especially important for adolescents.