05/15/2014 05:50 pm ET Updated Jul 15, 2014

Taking the Lead on Women's Public Health

Picture a young woman in a remote village in rural Africa. Her village sits in the midst of far reaching grasslands. She cannot read or write. There is no school, no running water and she's far too young to be caring for her three small children, all under the age of five. But there she is.

Now imagine she learns about contraception -- from a midwife or from a woman in her village. She thinks that maybe this would be a good option; she can barely care for the children that she has and so she decides, for now, to not have any more. She decides that she wants contraception.

She walks for miles to the nearest clinic. When she arrives, she waits in line, gets her pills and takes them home. But what happens if she gets home and realizes that they are fake sugar pills? Or what if they are in fact real, but she can't make it back to the clinic when her supply runs out? What if the clinic runs out of its stock?

What happens is another unwanted or unintended pregnancy and a heavier burden to meet basic needs like buying food and clothing for her children. There are more than 200 million women around the world whose stories mirror this challenging journey -- women who want to avoid pregnancy, but lack access to contraceptives.

Go where the supply chain has stopped

Recently, I was honored to give the keynote address at the 2014 Women in Leadership Conference at the Harvard School of Public Health. The event brought together hundreds of healthcare professionals, scholars and students to discuss where we are as a global community in providing access to affordable health care, and where we are falling short. As the CEO of an international healthcare nonprofit, my focus is on how to expand sustainable, uninterrupted access to high quality healthcare everywhere, for everyone.

At WomanCare Global we empower women to choose whether and when they'll have children. We want to ensure that every aspect of the supply chain has been audited and addressed. Where gaps exist, we work to close them so products make it to where they need to be, when they need to be there.

Our model redirects financial surplus from product sales in developed countries to subsidize and often lose money on products in under-served markets. By doing so, we can eliminate economic and geographic barriers and increase our impact.

But change doesn't just come from reworking the supply chain, it comes from direct engagement with our clients.

Recently, one of our team, Milka, discovered that a doctor in a rural African village was interested in using long-acting contraception, specifically IUDs, but lacked the necessary training on insertion and removal. IUDs are as effective as permanent sterilization but are reversible and allow a woman to fully restore her fertility. Milka coordinated training for the doctor from a local midwife. Through our Maximizing Provider Effectiveness (MAX) program, we compensated the midwife for her services and now that the doctor is well-versed on the insertion and removal of IUCDs, she routinely presents this option to patients. Remarkably, rather than keep the honorarium for herself, the midwife used the money to buy more supplies for the doctor's clinic.

Stories like this remind me why I chose to be in public health. If we can influence one remote doctor in Africa, then maybe we can influence other doctors in other villages. We hope that influence spreads from village to village, from community to community and -- in turn -- to the rest of the world.

Saundra Pelletier is the CEO of WomanCare Global, an international nonprofit organization that improves the lives of women by providing access to quality, affordable women's health care products through a sustainable supply chain.