February 27, 2017 |

A chance to win at health

After a devastating family loss, Monica Mutesa refused to give up hope. Now she’s working to bring hope to women and girls in Zambia.
Monica Mutesa, senior advocacy and policy officer in PATH’s Zambia office.
“I refused to accept that this pandemic could defeat the collective effort of mankind.”—Monica Mutesa, senior advocacy and policy officer in PATH’s Zambia office. Photo: Courtesy of Monica Mutesa.

Editor’s note: This is the sixth post in our blog series Local Brilliance: Women leading global health innovation, featuring firsthand accounts from scientists and leaders who are saving lives and improving health for women and girls in their countries and communities.

I first got interested in public health after my sister passed away from AIDS, which at the time was a deadly disease with few treatment options.

She was the last to pass after she lost her husband and her three young daughters to the disease. Before this, I had only experienced the effects of HIV and AIDS at a distance. But when it started decimating my sister’s family it hit home, and the final straw was when my sister passed.

I refused to accept that this pandemic could defeat the collective effort of mankind.

I chose to join a PEPFAR (or US President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief) HIV–funded project where, with like-minded colleagues, we worked with people living with HIV and AIDS. This included orphaned and vulnerable children. We worked to improve their lives and empower them to continue surviving after losing their parents, families, and guardians to AIDS.

Young girls looking up at camera.
“The fact that having HIV is no longer a sure death sentence gives me the passion and hope that things can change for the better when society works together to overcome a challenge.” Photo: PATH/David Jacobs.

My work on a day-to-day basis

I joined PATH in July 2015. My day-to-day work consists of meeting regularly with colleagues at the Zambian Ministry of Health to discuss policy issues that affect our work in Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (RMNCH). Sometimes these meetings include being part of thematic technical working groups such as family planning, management of childhood illnesses, etc., organizing alliance meetings where we plan out strategies to advocate for RMNCH, and overseeing evidence gathering to strengthen our advocacy. Other times I’ll organize launches or advocacy events with partners that appeal to a broad set of communities.

Because much of my work is across different time zones, there are no work hours that are cast in stone. Sometimes I have to communicate with colleagues when they are bright and sprightly when my own candle is just about to be snuffed out for the day!

A big win for all women

Group of young people.
Photo: PATH/David Jacobs.

One thing I worked on, which I consider a big win for women and their families, was developing a policy that expanded family planning options and access to injectable contraceptives. Zambia had no policy framework for training and authorizing nonclinic personnel, such as community-based distributors, to provide injectable contraceptives to women. So we invited interested stakeholders to explore how we could work together to increase access for women at the community level. It was hard work, but passing the policy was a big victory! Our work in Zambia expanded contraceptive access and options for women, especially in rural areas.

During this process, we learned that even though we had strong evidence and political will, sometimes policy process can be slow and unpredictable. However, as advocates, we remained persistent and worked with our partners and the Ministry of Health to create pathways for policy action.

Inspiration to champion on

A group of women and men walking together and carrying signs.
Here I am (to the right in a white T-shirt) during an Urban Mothers’ Walk organized by the Zambia Alliance for Maternal Neonatal and Child Health Alliance. Photo: PATH.

Everyone has tough days; we’re all human. As an advocate, I listen to my colleagues and try hard to see things from their perspective as I hope they would for me. But sometimes we need levity, so I try and lighten the moment (if it is appropriate) by highlighting the funny side of things. I do like to laugh, and this seems to always get us back to seeing things from a shared perspective.

The other thing that keeps me fired up is thinking about the women and children whose lives will be improved. This helps me continue my work. Even though we’re met sometimes with difficulties (and sometimes there are failures), I keep my chin up because I know that along with my colleagues, we’re making a difference. And that’s what keeps me going.

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  • Monica Mutesa is a senior advocacy and policy officer in the Zambia office at PATH.