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August 11, 2004

Getting the People Together

Parliamentarians Learn How to Enlist Constituents in the Policy-Making Process

Hon. Ruquiya Saeed, MD; Hon. Daisy Ehanire-Danjuma; and Hon. Saudatu Sani

Hon. Ruquiya Saeed, MD; Hon. Daisy Ehanire-Danjuma; and Hon. Saudatu Sani

Three women legislators from Nigeria and Pakistan got some helpful advice during a workshop for parliamentarians held at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health: when trying to broach the sensitive issues of family planning and reproductive health with villagers, don’t launch directly into a discussion of those topics.

 “You cannot come into a village and start talking about planned parenthood,” says Daisy Ehanire-Danjuma, a senator representing Nigeria's Edo South senatorial zone and chair of that body's Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development. “Husbands won't allow their wives to attend.”  

 Trainers at the week-long leadership training session, which began August 1 and was sponsored by the School’s Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health, emphasized legislators would do better first by talking about broad beliefs and values that everyone shares—human rights, reducing maternal mortality, increasing child survival. Then, says Ehanire-Danjuma, “the discussion will lead very naturally into things such as family planning, which foster the agreed-upon values.”

 Saudatu Sani, a member of Nigeria's House of Representatives and chair of the House Committee on Women Affairs and Youth Development, agrees that villagers are a key ingredient in effective policy making. “I must link up with all stakeholders, from householders on up to society at large, so that the whole range of reproductive choices can be considered by all,” says Sani, who along with 10 other parliamentarians from around the world, came to Baltimore for the seminars.

The two Nigerian women also emphasize their nation is faced with other vast public health challenges as well, including the curbing of HIV/AIDS in a polygamous society, and a lack of infrastructure in the countryside that is driving rural populations into the cities, with all the attendant misery that such a migration entails.

Capt. (Retd.) Ruquiya Saeed, MD, since 2002 a member of the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan, Pakistan, says that the patriarchal nature of her society contributes to the difficulty of teaching villagers about reproductive health. “It is difficult to discuss these issues publicly, even with your family,” she said.

Now, however, Saeed has some help: the government of Pakistan is officially backing family planning efforts. With this boost from the authorities, she has decided to take the discussion directly to the men, with quite encouraging results. “I go talk to the men and they are fantastic,” she says. “They are happy to see at last a woman coming to talk to them. The men welcome their chance to be heard, but they are shy.”

The conference leaders also stressed some of the nitty-gritty issues that policy makers all over the world must be sure to attend to, such as gathering good data so that policy choices can be based on facts, not conjecture. Also emphasized: the importance of tracking where your funds are going, so you can tell whether the money you're spending is doing what it's supposed to.

All three women agree that education, especially for girls, is crucial as well. “When you are educated, you know your rights, including your reproductive rights,” says Ehanire-Danjuma. “And that will solve the wealth problem.” According to UNICEF, 60 percent of the world’s 100 million out-of-school children are girls.

Saudatu Sani came away with perhaps the conference's most inspiring directive: “Leadership should not always limit ourselves to what is easy to do; we must also look at what is impossible to achieve.” —Rod Graham