Meet the Young African Women Shaking Up the Global Health Sector

Around the world, women make 75 percent of the health workforce and continue to be the primary caretakers in communities and families. They also experience heightened health risks.

This is thanks to persistent gender-based violence and stigma that prevents access to preventive care and treatment. Despite these realities, women occupy fewer than 25 percent of leadership roles in the health sector.

Adanna Chukwuma, Karen Maniraho, and Favorite Iradukunda are slaying the game when it comes to demonstrating that young women of African descent can lead – and are leading – the global health equity movement.

As Global Health Corps (GHC) alumni, these ladies are committed to playing their part in realizing health as a human right for all. 

GHC’s Brittany Cesarini caught up with these ladies to learn about how they’re crafting their own unique leadership journeys. And how they are disrupting the status quo in global health leadership along the way.  


Adanna Chukwuma

Why do you think we need more women leaders in global health?

Adanna: There is overwhelming evidence that diversity of team membership and leadership promotes creativity and productivity in teams. Therefore, increasing the proportion of female leaders in global health will increase our effectiveness at addressing the pressing health problems we face.

One can also make an ethical argument. We know that bias partly shapes the gaps between male-female representation in leadership. This bias does not always reflect performance. It may be a matter of discomfort with the idea of women in leadership. This is a wrong that must be righted.

Karen: Health and who has access to it will always be a discussion of power. Without women in positions of power, we cannot tackle the systemic inequalities that affect women and our communities.

Favorite: I think this is a matter of logic and holding true to what we believe. If global health values equity, equality, and social justice, if we are advocating for these values for other people. Doesn’t it make sense to start at home?

Where is equality and justice, when women make up to 75% of the healthcare workforce but occupy less than 25% of the leadership positions?

We are all leaders and learners - @favourtieiradukunda Click To Tweet

What lessons did you learn from the Women Leaders in Global Health conference at Stanford University last October?

Adanna: In one session at the conference, Laurie Garrett and Agnes Binagwaho shared personal stories about the bias they encountered and overcame to excel in their careers. Their conversation stuck with me because of the understanding that excellence can be female, and it can be black African.

A paraphrased version of my favorite quote, uttered by Laurie Garrett, is: 

Women need to shove their modesty through the back door. There are billions of lives at stake - @Laurie_Garrett Click To Tweet

Karen: It was quite inspiring to hear Dr. Afaf Meleis talk about the ways “women are vulnerable and at risk in their productive and reproductive lives.” 

There was also a panel titled “How to Become a Change Agent in Global Health” moderated by Donna Shalala. It featuring Ambassador Deborah Birx, Patricia Garcia, and Vanessa Kerry, among others.

They all so candidly discussed successes and the importance of failures in their global health journeys in refreshingly honest ways.

Favorite: Dr. Afaf Meleis brought up the issue of missing nurses. Nurses are continuously under-represented in global health leadership. They have also missed out on discussions meaningful to the advancement of healthcare, yet we all know that nurses are the backbone of healthcare.

Karen Maniraho

What advice can you give young women aspiring to have leadership roles in global health and to those supporting them? 

Adanna: We can start where we are to influence the gender imbalance in global health in the right direction by challenging ourselves to take risks and more responsibility in our careers. 

Karen: 1. Mentoring at least one girl will help change the status of women in leadership today. Secondly, don’t be afraid to fail. In fact, failure is something we should celebrate. 3. Don’t “lean in” if it’s only to replicate male models.

Our work as women leaders can’t simply be about breaking the glass ceiling. Rather, it must be about rebuilding the whole building so that its doors are open to all. 

As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. — Marianne Williamson Click To Tweet

Favorite: We have a lot of female leaders in global health, yet they are not considered as leaders because we measure their leadership abilities against a biased definition of leadership.

We need to redefine leadership and not be intimidated by all the biased definitions out there. We need to realize that women are not just leaders but also innovators. 

Favorite Iradukunda

How are you committing to investing in your own professional development as a young leader in global health?

Adanna: I recently joined a Lean In Circle primarily so that I can be intentional about confronting my fears, taking career risks, and developing strategies for dealing with bias.

Karen: After my Global Health Corps fellowship in Burundi, that I realized elevating underrepresented voices through storytelling had a key role in amplifying health conversations. Also, reconnecting with my homeland and working with people taught me innovative ways of communicating health and social needs.  

Favorite: I have always considered professional growth as a result of receiving and giving. receiving 2. giving. My mentors’ help in achieving my goals is part of the receiving.  

With regards to giving, I have invested in younger women. However, I need to redefine my mentorship strategies to be more intentional with clear expectations and deliverables on both sides.

Have the courage to use your own reason - Karen Click To Tweet.

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Mwiche Siame: Influence and leadership is much more than having a “position”

Mwiche Siame's drive to work in health came from a place of having lost close family & friends to HIV Click To Tweet

Mwiche Siame grew up in the small town of Kitwe, Zambia. As a Global Health Corps fellow, Mwiche worked at the Ministry of Health Zambia as a Senior Research Associate. She stayed at the Ministry of Health and is currently working as a Strategic Information Officer in the Ministry’s Department of Policy and Planning. Her work involves ensuring that health workers obtain training in data quality and use of data/health information for decision making.

Previously, Mwiche completed her Bachelor of Science degree in biology at the University of Zambia, becoming actively involved in the AB (abstain, be faithful) club, which focuses on HIV/AIDS prevention. In this club, she and other college students travelled to primary and secondary schools to give lectures and mentor students about the risks of HIV/AIDS.

She worked for the Macha Research Trust, which is a nonprofit organization with the mission of improving healthcare through research. In 2011, she continued her education at the graduate level, obtaining a degree in epidemiology with her thesis research focusing on prevention and treatment of risk factors of malaria in pregnant women.

Why did you decide to work in the health sector even though you didn’t study medicine or train to be a health professional?

I studied biological sciences and could have worked in another sector but I strongly felt that I could still make a difference in global health. Initially, I worked in a lab for infectious diseases, focusing on malaria. After about five years, I decided to go back to school and study public health.

When I went back to doing lab work I struggled to find my place. I decided to become a Global Health Corps fellow and then it became very clear that I needed to get back to my first love, which is working in HIV from a public health angle.

In college you worked on HIV prevention. How did you mobilise other students to get involved and take action?

I was a passionate student leader and an advocate of HIV prevention among my fellow college students and those in secondary. My drive to work in health came from a place of having lost close family and friends to HIV.

I was able to share personal experiences with others on how HIV impacts young people and also on reproductive health, specifically among young women.

And you were placed at the Ministry of Health in Lusaka as a Global Health Corps fellow. Did you expect to stay there beyond your fellowship year?

Absolutely not! I had no idea what my next career would be three months before the fellowship ended. The opportunity was unforeseen but I was in the right place at the right time and I took it.

What has surprised you about working for the Ministry of Health?

I initially did not have a clear understanding of why the system was so bureaucratic, and now that I have worked there I know better and appreciate the need to have such a structured system.

When people think of health, we often think of medicine and tools rather than data. Why does data collection and analysis matter for health outcomes?

I often have to explain my relevance at the Ministry of Health as I am neither a doctor nor a nurse, especially to my grandmother! I work in the Department of Policy and Planning and work primarily on quality improvement of health services through data use.

Data collection and analysis matters as it is the backbone for measuring performance and is the basis for decision making and policy formulation in health. Without data, there is no evidence! And without evidence, there is no strong justification to have interventions that improve health outcomes.

People often think that leaders are the ones who are out on the front lines protesting and leading rallies but we know that’s only one type of leadership. What’s your own personal leadership style?

My leadership approach is strategic and participative. It entails encouraging each member of the team to maximise their strengths and be active in making a change.

I feel that influence and leadership is much more than having a “position” – it’s more about deliberate efforts to pool the knowledge and experience of all players. A multi-sectoral approach is critical.

Can you tell us about a mentor who really impacted you?

My grandmother! She did not have a college education, was married at 15 years old, and has had many health challenges, but she still remains a leader in her own right against all odds. She has taught me a lot about life and given me career advice based on following my heart, being true to myself, and challenging myself to do and be better.

Her hard work and advocacy for women’s empowerment has been a great source of inspiration to me.

What’s your favourite way to relax and renew your energy when the fight for health equity gets tough?

I love music – singing and listening to music relaxes me. I am fortunate to have a strong support system of friends and family to talk to and hang out with, and this helps a lot. Also, I do take some time to meditate and pray too, and that keeps me grounded and present.

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Caroline Numuhire: If you want to be a human rights advocate, just do it

Work on your gifts and then the universe will grant you wisdom to shine. Click To Tweet
Global health and creative writing go hand in hand for Caroline Numuhire. From Kigali, Rwanda, Caroline got her start in global health as an intern with Save the Children Rwanda. She went on to address childhood malnutrition as a Global Health Corps (GHC) fellow at Gardens for Health International (GHI) in 2014 before joining GHC staff as a Program Associate last year.

Caroline regularly contributes to ECOFORUM and Environmental Africa in addition to penning inspirational short stories. She is currently working on a novel and pursuing a Master’s degree in Global Health Delivery at the University of Global Health Equity in Kigali.

You are both a global health practitioner and a writer. How do you juggle your main hustle and your side hustle? Is there overlap in these seemingly disparate worlds?

My professional life in the global health domain matters a lot to me to feel fulfilled as a human being as this is my contribution to build a more just world. I enjoy sleeping at night knowing that I spent a day achieving a good goal. If I was ever asked to pick one job, it would be a hard decision because I am passionate about my work as well as my writing. I always feel lucky to live in a world that allows me to practice both.

When I believe in a cause or a profession, it becomes so easy to handle it because I understand why I invest every drop of energy and I ensure that I find time to juggle and work on my passions. The reason why I (agronomist and writer) smoothly fit in global health is because it is not and has never been an isolated technical field. Communication, writing, and public speaking are some of the key tools that allow me to be an effective advocate for global health issues. There’s still a huge need to write about these issues that are affecting humanity.

Caroline Numuhire 2

Agriculture, nutrition, and the environment are often overlooked aspects of health and wellbeing. Why are you passionate about these issues?

The simplest answer would be that I have an educational background in agriculture, rural development, and global health delivery. But the true answer is more complex.

Sometimes when we talk about good health, we think about the absence of diseases and when it comes to wellbeing, we picture cash in our minds! In Rwanda, communities of farmers are the first victims of climate change effects and of malnutrition. In the early days of my career, one of the startling realities I faced in the field was that farmer communities suffer from malnutrition while they produce all the beautiful and healthy food that we consume and consequently they face poor health outcomes. In my eyes, it was an obvious facet of social injustice that I had to dedicate my efforts to.

You work with Global Health Corps fellows in Rwanda, many of whom are new to the health sphere and even to living and working on the African continent. What’s been your most challenging experience in this role so far?

The biggest challenge of my work is to work with smart, energetic and result-driven young people who want to observe the impact of their fellowship right away. It requires a form of art to help them understand that once you sow a tree seed it takes days, weeks, and most of the time years to yield flowers and then fruits.

And your most rewarding?

The most rewarding part is to see fellows graduating from the fellowship as empowered, more resilient leaders who are ready to continuously change the face of poverty and inequity wherever they are heading. It is a true transformation!

Caroline Numuhire says 'Don’t fear that there are so many human rights advocates already – they are not YOU' Click To Tweet

Professional women are often stereotyped and coerced into looking, acting and being a certain way. How do you stay true to yourself in the face of societal pressure to conform?

Oh, that’s a poisonous disease! Yes, we live in a society with predetermined norms. Yes, we want to experience the feeling of belonging. Yes, we have so many excuses, right?

In the last 20+ years of my life, I have played the card of likability. You know what? I lost, miserably. Just because I failed to please the only person who matters to me: myself. It’s so easy to be a submissive, scared, shy, soft, incompetent, slow, lazy woman (beauty being tolerated!) and be accepted, included and appreciated. But if your inner voice tells you that you are something else, then be exactly that person. For yourself. Don’t fear making men feel insecure because of their own weaknesses. It’s not your role. If you want to look sexy, smart and happy, be sexy, smart and happy. The formula is simple.

I intimately know that I’m an energetic, hard-working, empathic and imperfect girl and I totally, shamelessly and unapologetically embrace myself. What other people think of me is their own right but not a business I manage. A woman has to value herself and if you don’t know how you can start reading or watching Louise Hay’s meditation videos as well as learning about other women who understand the secret of true self-love.

What advice would you share with other young leaders who want to use their gifts to make a difference in the world?

First of all, work hard on your gift. The world will respect you if you respect your gift. We are all talented. God created us with tremendous reserves of amazing aptitudes and gifts. Just find your own, refine it and it will blossom to heaven.

Epictetus said, “If you want to be a writer, write”, so if you want to be a human rights advocate and you believe that this is your call, your life purpose, just do it. Just do it and dare to believe that only the sky can be a limit. We are all wonderful, we just have to see the wonder in us. Don’t fear that there are so many human rights advocates already –they are not YOU. They don’t hold your values. You are another highly valuable advocate among them. Our biggest enemy is that inner voice that criticizes us, or when we chose to trust other people’s negative criticisms. You have to intentionally shut their volume down, work on your gifts, and then the universe will grant you wisdom to shine.

Caroline Numuhire 1

From one Beyhive member to another, what’s your favorite Beyoncé song? What do you find empowering about her music?

Oh wow. I love all of Beyoncé’s music and certain songs become my favorite depending on my life weather. Currently, I am in love with “Grown Woman”. Because I also “remember being young, tough, brave, I knew what I needed, and… I can do whatever I want.”

I love Beyoncé because she is not only a performer, she is an empowered lady who empowers other women around the world. I play her music on YouTube, and think what a great beat for relaxation! When I am singing and dancing to her songs, I have the feeling that she understands me as a woman and she gets the personal and professional struggles I go through. Then, I smile because I know we could be friends and talk about women’s rights until 3 AM. I also watch her interviews. She empowers me and taught me the importance of beauty in a woman’s life. But most of all, I respect her because she works hard, gets up when she’s down, keeps progressing, is creative and competitive with herself, and she is so gracious!

What is one leadership mantra that you live by?

“You don’t have to be great to start, but you have to start to be great.” – Zig Ziglar

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Fatsani Banda: Self-ship is the enemy of leadership

Fatsani Banda
Fatsani Banda's passion comes from the desire to leave the world better than she found it Click To Tweet

Fatsani Banda is a young woman carving a path for herself in the world of global health. Born and raised in Malawi, Fatsani studied journalism and worked in a number of organisations before gaining a fellowship at the Global Health Corps (GHC).

During her GHC fellowship year, Fatsani worked as a Procurement and Logistics Coordinator at Partners in Health stationed in Malawi. She helped manage a $500,000+ budget for the purchase and delivery of clinical items as well as the construction of new surgical wards. In partnership with the Ministry of Health and UNICEF, Fatsani helped implement an electronic stock management system for tracking drugs and essential commodities.

Following her fellowship, Fatsani remained with Partners in Health Malawi as an Operation Manager for two years. When Ebola hit Liberia, Fatsani was spurred to action and joined the Partners in Health team in Liberia, working as an Operations Manager to support in strengthen the country’s health systems

In a former life, you worked at a bank. We’re always inspired by bold career moves, but tell us -why did you make the switch to global health?

My main drive in life comes from the desire to leave the world better than I found it. Global health is a platform for me to give back to this world.

Only healthy people can contribute to the development of society – even those who work in the bank have to be healthy to render their services.

Global health is a platform for me to give back to this world - Fatsani Banda Click To Tweet

When most of us think about health, we think about doctors and nurses. How are you leading efforts to solve global health challenges despite not having any medical training?

When I stepped into the health sector as a Global Health Corps fellow in Malawi in 2012, I had a similar perception. Over the past five years, it has become very clear to me that factors beyond medical training are important determinants of health and access to healthcare.

Fatsani Banda shows that you can have a career in health despite having no medical training Click To Tweet

There are remote areas in developing countries that have a good number of physicians, but patients still do not get the essential drugs they need to prevent and treat disease because there is no functioning system to make this medicine accessible. This is where I fit in. My job is to collaborate with medical personnel and vendors to bridge these gaps and strengthen supply chain systems.

Fatsani Banda 3

In the aftermath of the Ebola epidemic in West Africa, many people moved away from the region. What motivated you to leave your home country of Malawi to help with relief efforts in Liberia, one of the hardest hit countries?

Just as I did nothing to earn decent health services throughout my life, those born in Liberia with a dearth of health resources similarly did nothing to deserve such conditions.

Perhaps because of my undeserved good fortune, I feel an obligation and a desire to help rectify inequity. It’s been so rewarding to serve the people of Liberia, whose health system was in shambles before the intervention by Partners in Health (PIH).

The Ebola situation has calmed down, but you’re still working on rebuilding health systems. What does a typical day look like for you?

Most developing (and even some developed) countries have entrenched health problems, and Liberia is not spared. Working with PIH to strengthen the health system in Liberia has been quite thrilling in many ways.

On a daily basis, we see our interventions impacting, and often times saving, people’s lives. We provide modern healthcare options and supply essential medicine in communities which are far from the capital.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work as a health equity leader so far? What’s been the most challenging?

Progressive service delivery is what makes me happy. As part of PIH’s Operations department, I work with a team that is the hub of all functionalities of the organization. Seeing patients getting the lifesaving drugs they need in the rural facilities that we support really keeps my heart at peace!

The flip side of this is the challenging part –Liberia’s road network, especially in rainy season, is very poor and is often the cause of delays in operations. Accomplishing our planned tasks becomes hard in this situation, but we have to carry on.

Fatsani Banda 2

It seems like your work, by nature, is very collaborative. What it’s like to join efforts with people across sectors and borders to improve health outcomes?

The greatest ideas are the ones that are dreamed up by teams of people. When two or more people gather and brainstorm around a challenge, the probability of getting an excellent outcome is high.

Fatsani Banda: The greatest ideas are the ones that are dreamed up by teams of people Click To Tweet

I find the nature of my job very thrilling as it involves cooperating with other people who have different perspectives from mine. Together we think up and implement solutions to the difficult challenge of strengthening the health systems of Liberia.

You also supervise and mentor other young health equity leaders who are following in your path. What’s the best piece of advice you share with them?

Everybody has a role to play in this work. Title and rank do not matter as much as people think –anyone can step up as a leader and come up with an idea.

The supervisors and managers in any work environment depend highly on their subordinates. I usually share with my team that we need bottom-up efforts, collaboration, and a commitment to long-term change to be successful.

The world feels very chaotic right now, and new health and development challenges are emerging every day. What motivates you to keep working for a brighter future?

We all hope for the best, but the best cannot happen whilst we are just seated. We have to have our minds focused on making good health a reality for all at all times.

Whilst new health challenges are cropping up, building equitable systems is what will allow us to deal with them. I constantly remind myself that change is possible and celebrating progress keeps me motivated.

What three words would you use to describe the best boss you ever had?

The best boss I ever had was supportive, hardworking and a team player.

What is one leadership mantra that you live by?

Self-ship is the enemy of leadership.

If you’d like to share your story with She Leads Africa, let us know more about you and your story here