When We Actually Listen to Women, Magical Things Happen

By Erin O’Connor for White Ribbon Alliance

What Women Want: Demands for Quality Reproductive and Maternal Healthcare from Women and Girls is a groundbreaking worldwide advocacy campaign seeking to improve maternal and reproductive healthcare for women and girls.

What do women want?

The campaign asked over 1 million women and girls an open-ended question about what women wanted, rather than what they didn’t. The open-ended nature of the question gave women and girls complete freedom to answer What is your one request for quality reproductive and maternal healthcare services? They were able to answer in their own words, without being forced to answer A/B/C or D only — they were not forced to give the answer White Ribbon Alliance or other What Women Want partners thought they should give.

Initially the campaign was offered online so that a wide range of women could participate, and responses came in from 114 countries , but as the campaign grew, so did in-person outreach and mobilizers were able to survey women across varying countries, many traveling to less accessible locations and villages where individual mobilizes would have one-on-one conversations with hundreds or thousands of women to find out from them, in their own words, what quality reproductive and maternal healthcare meant to them.

The What Women Want Interactive Dashboard offers a user-friendly digital visualization tool in which users can read the exact responses of participants and filter according to geographical region, age, and health topic category. Although there were initially 50 categories, the What Women Want campaign updated and consolidated topic areas as mobilizers sent in suggestions, and eventually settled on the 39 categories available on the Dashboard.

Photo credit: White Ribbon Alliance Kenya.

The best thing about the Dashboard is that it is public — teachers, public health officials and students alike can all access it, without a password, and without a paywall. What Women Want hopes that this information can be used to inform public policy and that people in power as well as other organizations reflect on the responses of women and girls, and think about incorporating the What Women Want methodology to their own work, by playing the women and girls most impacted by policy decisions at the center of all policy conversations.

Photo credit: White Ribbon Alliance Pakistan.

The power of listening to women

When I became involved with the What Women Want campaign as a coding volunteer earlier this year, I was ignorant to so much of the inequity women face globally when seeking healthcare. As a coding volunteer, I was responsible for reviewing women’s responses within the dashboard and making sure they were categorized correctly within the 39 response topics, which ranged from ‘timely and attentive care’ to ‘family planning and contraceptive info.’ In this process, I reviewed thousands of unedited survey responses from women in nine different countries, their entries ranging from ‘free family planning’ to ‘no verbal abuse.’ I was shocked by the amount of women citing traumatic experiences with doctors, some reporting being mocked, harassed and raped. For some women in cultures where reporting sexual violence is clouded by stigma and victim-blaming, this campaign served as a safe-space in which to share their experiences free from judgement.

Having been raised in a progressive, New England household in which freedom of choice was celebrated, I accepted reproductive health service as a given up to a certain point. Former President Donald Trump’s 2016 election was the first event that shifted this paradigm; for the first time in my life, the future of my ability to make decisions about my reproductive health was threatened. I recall friends switching from oral birth control to longer term methods such as IUDs shortly after the election in case the new administration made access to birth control more difficult, and unfortunately, one can’t dismiss these measures as dramatic. In the past few years, we’ve seen national efforts to roll back abortion access and threats to defund reproductive healthcare facilities, many of which also provide routine medical care and cancer screening.

Walking alongside hundreds of thousands of like-minded individuals at the D.C. Women’s March in 2017 and reading posts of similar events being held across the world energized me and evidenced how many people were devoted to the cause. It was, after all, an issue of human rights. Still though, my understanding of gendered inequity in health care was rudimentary, limited to an abortion-specific binary; access to abortion=good, inaccess=bad. This understanding left out so many other components of quality care, many of which I have learned more about through my involvement with What Women Want.

Photo credit: White Ribbon Alliance Uganda.

During my time coding for the project, I’ve learned more than I could have possibly imagined about issues facing women globally. I’ve learned that inaccess is not limited to lack of abortion services but extends to services like pap smears, mammograms and dentistry. Women aren’t living in a state of anxiety just due to their lack of birth control, but in some cases because they cannot travel the tens of miles to the nearest health facility in case their child is injured. Surveying the responses for ‘respectful and dignified care’ was especially difficult, as it demonstrated how many women don’t have access to compassion within their medical care; in some cases, women reported being harassed or even insulted. What Women Want covers immense ground and packages this knowledge in a digestible, user-friendly way.

Photo credit: White Ribbon Alliance Nigeria.

Best of all, I did not learn about these issues through heavily edited textbooks or bureaucratic regurgitations, but directly from the women responding. What Women Want is like no other campaign I’ve ever seen; respondents are not merely respondents, but people–people with livelihoods, various backgrounds, hobbies, trials and joys.

Survey responses are not merely survey responses, but uncensored statements directly from women. People’s statements, their wants, are not homogenized and distilled into vague percentages; women’s desires are not reduced to statistics from which the individual themself is excluded.

What Women Want gives women a chance to speak candidly, to voice their frustrations and desires unapologetically when many of us have access to no such opportunity regularly. What Women Want encourages us to pause, challenge our surety and listen-to ourselves and one another.

Learn more about the What Women Want Interactive Dashboard by visiting White Ribbon Alliance’s website.

Erin O’Connor is a graduating senior at the University of Vermont studying English and writing. Erin is currently a student reporter for the Community News Service, a Vermont news organization providing coverage to small Vermont towns, where she writes mostly about public health issues. At White Ribbon Alliance, Erin reviewed and edited code for the What Women Want campaign, reviewing the dashboard to make sure responses were categorized correctly. Erin plans on obtaining her MPH after graduating and is particularly interested in women’s reproductive health advocacy. In her free time, Erin enjoys reading, doing yoga and cooking.




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Inspiring and convening advocates to uphold the right of all women to be safe and healthy before, during and after pregnancy.

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