“Gender cross-cuts everything”: Tsion Yohannes, Chair of the UGHE Center for Gender Equity

Tsion Yohannes speaks to the WLGH19 audience. Tsion was the Chief Conference Organizer for the 2019 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference, at which the Center for Gender Equity was first launched.

The World Economic Forum (WEF) recently released the 2020 Global Gender Gap report, tracking the gender parity scores across 149 countries. Top of the list there were the expected Nordic frontrunners, Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden, who have closed their respective gender gaps by at least 80%. One sub-Saharan African country made the top ten – Rwanda. Strong female political leadership, equal rights to land and near-equal participation in labor for men and women paint a positive picture of Rwanda’s efforts to close its gender gap, with the country only 4.3% shy of completing gender parity in education.

But what does it mean to fully close this gender gap, and how can academic institutions play a role in this? In the run-up to International Women’s Day, we spoke to Tsion Yohannes, Chair of UGHE’s new Center for Gender Equity who emphasized the need to both formalize and mainstream gender frameworks in academic organizations to drive forward a more equitable world. Launched at the UGHE-hosted Women Leaders in Global Health Conference late last year, the Center will not only impact UGHE’s academic programs and community engagement, but also look inwards, at its own organizational structure with the long-term vision of becoming a model of excellence for other academic institutions both in regionally, and beyond. 

How did the idea for the Center for Gender Equity come about? 

Gender is at the center of UGHE’s work, it has always been there. We have a strong internal female leadership and, through their insight and ambition, discussions began around the need to make this gender focus a strategic priority. The plan to develop a Center to formalize this was driven forward in the planning and execution of the 2019 Women Leaders in Global Health Conference in November, which UGHE were proud to host as the first time the series had been held on the African continent. 

Can you give me some background about you and your experience with gender and your role at UGHE now? 

I did my undergraduate degree in Sociology, and my very first job after this was working on a Prevention of Gender Related Abuse and Violence project. We didn’t have a Center for Gender Studies back in my home country Ethiopia so in some ways, you could say I went into this field blindly, but in doing so you learn a lot from those you work with and see firsthand the inequalities that exist all around you. I was working with women and girls, survivors of violence who needed support in accessing education and legal assistance. It was this proximity to the very people affected that gave me the incentive to learn more. When the first Institute of Gender Studies was established, I was one of the first to join that department. From that moment on I was immersed in a number of gender-specific studies including the National Gender Profile of Ethiopia. 

All these activities were born out of that very first project I engaged with and the situation I saw there. So it becomes personal after that. Whatever I do is done with a gender lens and now that is why I am pushing everyone to take the same approach. I’ve worked in the field of mining, agriculture, and health, on gender issues. Gender cross-cuts everything, it is relevant to every sector. That is why I continue to pursue a career in this now.

How does UGHE already drive gender parity, and what do you feel are the next steps the organization will make to closing the gap entirely?

Overall, it’s a very positive picture. UGHE has been very gender-sensitive since its inception. From an academic perspective, there have been more efforts to recruit female students, and our MBBS curriculum includes a gender and social justice course. UGHE has also made efforts to encourage female employment within its internal staff and campus workers; gender sensitivities are put as a requirement on UGHE job posts shared which consequently contributes to a gender-sensitive workforce. I’m very happy that we have a Mother’s Room in the Kigali Office – it’s testimony to UGHEs gender focus.

The plan for the Center of Gender Equity is to drive gender parity through four major pillars – and my role as chair will cross-cut all departments in every aspect of UGHE. The first pillar looks specifically at academics, making sure that gender is mainstreamed throughout all curricula, training, and events. We also plan to put a gender lens on all research, not only as a standalone project but also as a cross-cutting strategy. This includes making grants more accessible for women, and those researching gender issues outside our immediate organization.

The organizational pillar looks at UGHE’s technical capacity; it considers its working environment for women and how this inspires opportunities for leadership, looks at what policies and guidelines we are using and whether our M&E framework has gender-sensitive indicators. Over the next year, we’ll be mobilizing more gender-focused resources, such as books, to provide more accessible information for staff, students and faculty. The fourth significant pillar is to ensure a gender lens on all the work we are currently doing through community engagement and outreach. One of the ways we can ensure gender sensitivity is to include the views of the women and girls as well as men, making sure their immediate and strategic needs are addressed in a sustainable way and giving them decision making power. 

What is your ultimate vision for the Center and how do you imagine its impact playing out at UGHE? 

My vision for the Center is for it to be a well resourced Center of Excellence in gender-sensitive standards of practice, not only in UGHE but also regionally and internationally. Our Center could be a model for other universities to follow, those not only engaged in global health sectors but also for others.

The theme of International Women’s Day this year is #EachforEqual. If you imagine an equal and equitable world, what do you see? 

For me, an equal world is where women men have the right to make their own decisions in all aspects of life, be it social, political, economical. I’d like to see this reflected in all levels of society; at the family, community, national and international levels – to me, equality starts when it is felt by everybody.