Tausi Suedi: Global, Maternal, and Child Health Champion
The COVID-19 pandemic brought more threats than solely the danger of a new disease to communities around the world. The pandemic exacerbated pre-existing disparities and increased barriers to addressing them, especially for women's health. Long before and throughout the pandemic, Women's Health Activist Movement Global Board member and global health champion Tausi Suedi, MPH, has worked to improve health outcomes for women and girls experiencing barriers to health services, resources, and information. In addition to her academic appointments at Towson University and Penn Medicine in global health, Suedi serves as chair of the board of directors for Childbirth Survival International (CSI), a Baltimore-based nonprofit organization. In this position, she has supported several community-based outreach programs for mothers and families across sub-Saharan Africa to distribute information, deliver services and essential supplies, and create opportunities for skills development to benefit women and girls with low literacy levels. CSI's work is distinctive for its collaborative spirit and partnership with community leaders, an approach it has found to be successful in delivering necessary resources and creating positive, sustainable change.
Suedi says her passion for public health began early. As a child, Suedi aspired to be an obstetrician. She traveled frequently and saw first-hand that quality of life and access to health services varied between developed countries and less developed countries. From this experience, and from her parents, who worked for the United Nations, she learned the practice of public service, which motivated her to pursue a career in improving maternal and child health outcomes in communities where individuals struggle to access health services, resources, and information.
She spent seven years coordinating programs for women in Uganda, Tanzania, and Afghanistan before joining CSI, where she led multiple efforts across five countries in sub-Saharan Africa to conduct community outreach for maternal, child, and community health programs. For International Women's Day 2020, with support from the Jewish Healthcare Foundation, CSI Uganda hosted an event to educate pregnant women about safe motherhood and the importance of delivering with a skilled birth attendant, and to distribute 320 childbirth kits. Suedi describes this effort as a great success.
Suedi's career has taught her that collective motivation to act drives change and that stakeholders' sense of urgency can be strikingly diverse. To truly support women and communities, she says, program organizers must understand community culture and involve community members, especially religious leaders, business owners, and local council leaders. In Africa, "many of these positions are filled by men," Suedi says, which "creates an opportunity to work with men to be able to advance some of the agendas for women and girls because it is a win-win for all."
Such an opportunity arose when CSI launched their first maternal health program in Uganda in 2014, which focused on maternal health education and distribution of essential medical supplies for birth. Some doubted that men would express interest—but Suedi opted to incentivize male attendance at the event with childbirth kit rewards. Nearly every woman who attended brought her husband. "You just have to figure out what people want," Suedi said.
Suedi recalled the men's awe at learning the complexity of women's health and its impact on a community, and she emphasized the importance of inviting them to the table, saying, "Men have to be actively involved, because if we are not engaging them in the conversation, if they don't understand the consequences of frequent births, especially those that are poorly spaced, then it creates several problems not only for [the mother] but for the family, the community, and the country … it becomes a global issue."
This represents one of Suedi's core philosophies: health systems must be built to work for pregnant women if they are to work for everyone. "If we're able to change or transform communities so that they are thriving and everybody is doing well, that has an impact all the way to the global level," she said.
In 2018, Suedi felt it was time to address inequities among young women of color in the U.S. and build on successes from the programs in sub-Saharan Africa. Given that CSI is headquartered in Baltimore, it was only fitting to host a program in the city. Translating lessons from Uganda and Tanzania CSI collaborated with local partners to launch Girl Talk, Girl Power, a free summer camp for about 20 adolescent Black girls in West Baltimore. The program was structured to address common issues many face, such as trauma from abuse, assault, and home instability. To date, the Girl Talk, Girl Power program has impacted 10,000 girls in sub-Saharan Africa and the U.S., teaching each girl to "advocate for herself and the girl standing behind her," Suedi says. "That's how we will fully transform communities."
As the COVID-19 pandemic increased inequalities for women and girls around the world and presented obstacles for CSI to engage with communities in sub-Saharan Africa during the past 18 months, Suedi has continued to innovate and adapt. CSI has maintained outreach to pregnant and postpartum women, families with young children and orphans, and families with individuals living with disabilities and chronic illnesses, held food drives, and developed a vocational skills training center to help women and girls learn how to become financially stable.
Presently in Rwanda, Somalia, Uganda, and Tanzania, CSI's vision is to expand throughout Africa and aid more communities, as preventable deaths of women and children continue each day, Suedi notes. She is heartened by partners who take a community-based focus and consider stakeholders' needs. Suedi says, "The Jewish Healthcare Foundation is one of those funders that truly understands the value of impacting people by putting people and communities first."