Women in Charge: A Force for Change on the Global Stage

As gender-based inequalities continue to pose grave threats to health systems, economies and societies, it's empowering to watch these women fighting for a healthier, more educated and more equal world.
10/30/2014 12:30 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

Last month, United Nations Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson's moving speech on feminism launched the UN's "HeForShe" campaign, encouraging 1 billion men and boys to join the fight against inequalities for women and girls globally. Three weeks later, Pakistani activist Malala Yousafzai became the youngest recipient ever to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to advocate for girls' right to education. It is not only exciting to see women's rights taking center stage but to see such shining examples of young, female leaders as a force for change.

As gender-based inequalities continue to pose grave threats to health systems, economies and societies, it's empowering to watch these women fighting for a healthier, more educated and more equal world. These are just two examples of remarkable women who are working diligently -- as leaders and spokeswomen and at the grassroots, national and global level -- to enhance the lives of others across the globe.

This week, my organization, Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Friends), is privileged to bring together two extraordinary models of female leadership for an intimate discussion on global health and development. On Oct. 30, Dr. Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE, and Barbara P. Bush, Co-Founder and CEO of Global Health Corps, will share their unique perspectives on the role that U.S. leadership plays in the fight against the three diseases on which Friends focuses. Both of these impressive women leaders came to global health by way of personal experiences. They can each speak with authority to the progress we have made to date in the worldwide fight against diseases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, and what more must be done.

When Dr. Gayle started her career at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the mid-1980s, HIV/AIDS was a newly discovered virus. Though people counseled her to stay away from it -- saying it was no more than a medical curiosity that would be quickly solved and never have major public health importance -- she chose, instead, to make AIDS the focus of her work. Her career includes 20 years with the Centers for Disease Control, where she served in various capacities and achieved the rank of Rear Admiral and Assistant Surgeon General in the U.S. Public Health Service as well as serving as the AIDS Coordinator and Chief of the HIV/AIDS Division for the U.S. Agency for International Development. She also directed the HIV, Tuberculosis and Reproductive Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Currently, Dr. Gayle leads the humanitarian organization, CARE, which works to serve the world's poorest communities, with a special focus on women. She has said that, in her role, "the most encouraging [experience] is when I can see the impact we have had in our investment in girls and women. For example, seeing what a two dollar loan can do to change the life of a woman and her family."

For her part, Barbara P. Bush's entry to global health came unexpectedly. The daughter of former President George W. Bush, Ms. Bush traveled with her father to Uganda as he launched the President's Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in 2003. The trip made such an impact that it was not long afterward that she switched her college major; her experience in Africa spurred a strong desire to help change the world as a global health advocate.

Following graduation, Ms. Bush took a job with the Red Cross Children's Hospital in South Africa and interned with UNICEF in Botswana. She also traveled with the UN World Food Programme, focusing on the importance of nutrition in antiretroviral treatment, and is a member of both UNICEF's Next Generation Steering Committee and the World Economic Forum's Young Global Shapers.

In recent years, Ms. Bush co-founded Global Health Corps (GHC), an organization that works to mobilize the next generation of leaders in the fight against health inequity. Six years after it began, GHC has expanded its network by 500 percent - from placing 22 fellows in eight organizations in 2009, to placing 128 fellows in 59 organizations in 2014.

As GHC's leader, Ms. Bush has frequently advocated for the inclusion of young people in global health policy, as well as for women's rights. Earlier this month, in praising Malala Yousafzai's Nobel accomplishment, she emphasized the importance of female empowerment in the fight for a healthier world. "It is well documented that when societies educate girls -- as well as boys -- and value educated women, all citizens are healthier and more prosperous," she said.

As a fellow global health advocate, it gives me great hope to see organizations like CARE and GHC continue a much-needed push to improve the quality of life for women and girls around the world. It is inspiring to see individuals like Helene Gayle and Barbara Bush leading the charge, heralding a new wave of leaders, including Malala and Emma. I have no doubt that when powerful, visionary women such as these join together, they can indeed change the world.