Inspirational Woman Interview: Sarah Kambou

Sarah Degnan Kambou, PhD, is the President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a nonprofit global research institute focused on promoting gender equitable development in the field of international development. Sarah has served as an advisor to multilateral institutions, leading corporations and governments seeking to integrate gender into policies, programs and services that will advance the status of women and girls around the world. In December 2012, Barack Obama appointed Sarah to the President’s Global Development Council, where she served as an adviser to the Administration until January 2017. Prior to ICRW, Sarah managed signature programs for CARE focused on addressing the social and economic vulnerability of marginalized populations, strengthening civil society in post-conflict settings, and promoting participatory development of under-served urban and rural communities. Prior to her work with CARE, Sarah managed the Center for International Health, which she co-founded in 1987, at the Boston University School of Public Health. Sarah is a member of the Board of Directors of Free the Slaves and of Global Impact.

You are the President of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), a nonprofit organization that seeks to promote gender equitable development within the field of international development. How did you first join the ICRW and can you tell us about some initiatives you have developed with the ICRW?

Sarah Kambou: For 25 years, I worked in the global development sector. My first professional job was with the Boston University School of Public Health, where I co-founded the Center for International Health. I then spent over a decade in sub-Saharan Africa, managing signature programs for CARE. That was an amazing opportunity to work closely with communities and national authorities – I learned so much! In 2002, I returned to the United States and joined ICRW as the director leading the research portfolio on gender, HIV and AIDS. Later, the President expanded my portfolio to include reproductive health and nutrition, and gender, violence and rights. In 2008, I was appointed COO and led the organization’s research and programs, finance and human resources, and worked closely with the organization’s Asia Regional Office in New Delhi, India. I threw my hat in the ring when the Board announced a global search for the next president of ICRW in 2009, and was thrilled when my appointment was announced in 2010. I am honored to serve as the President of ICRW. I get up every morning jazzed about heading in to the office and dealing with the day’s business. ICRW fills such a unique role in influencing the global discourse on gender and development; I feel as though I’m able to give something back to humankind everyday.

Can you tell us more about the ICRW’s research on women’s economic empowerment, adolescents and youth, and sexual and reproductive health?

Sarah Kambou: ICRW does important work through our regional hubs in DC, New Delhi and Kampala. On women’s economic empowerment, we’re working on important, but little known issues, such as time poverty for women, the unpaid care burden that often falls on women around the world and work in the informal sector. On adolescents and youth, ICRW is working to shed light on the health and well-being of this important population, as they currently make up a significant portion of the world’s population. We know that adolescents’ minds and bodies change rapidly during this critical time in their lives and often, their unique needs are not supported by development programs. One such example of this is our work to draw attention to the fact that suicide/self-harm is one of the top two causes of death among older adolescents (age 15 to 19) across the world. We’re working to uncover the factors that could be contributing to such high rates of suicide worldwide. On sexual and reproductive health, ICRW is working to understand the complexities in women’s lives that affect their ability to access, and make decisions around, using contraception. As part of this, we’re looking at how and whether couples talk about contraception affects women’s use of contraception. This is just a smattering of the important research we’re conducting to find solutions that advance the health and well-being of women and girls.

In your opinion, what are the biggest obstacles to collecting data in your job, and what are some best practices the ICRW uses?

Sarah Kambou: Around the world, it is challenging to collect accurate, sensitive data. A lot of that challenge is tied up in gender norms and expectations. Many people who we speak with give us honest and up-to-date information about their lives. But many might feel like they can’t be completely honest about the problems they face, the restrictions placed on them by their family or community or even recognize that many of the challenges they face are, in fact, gender-related barriers placed on them by society.

To minimize this, ICRW works very closely with partners who are in the field, working closely with women and girls, and men and boys, every single day, to ensure that methods of data collection, as well as questions asked, are culturally sensitive and are asked in a way that won’t put the respondent at risk. We also work closely with our own Institutional Review Board (IRB) and local IRBs to ensure we’re complying with the latest ethical guidelines on working with human research subjects.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during your career, and how did you overcome them?

Sarah Kambou: In this job, I have encountered a lot of breakthroughs, and of course, some challenges. One in particular comes to mind: I moved to Africa at a time when the continent was experiencing a lot of political unrest. In Togo and Cote d’Ivoire, I managed project teams under difficult and, at times dangerous, conditions. I developed a very keen appreciation for safety and security measures – not just having them posted on the office bulletin board, but consciously applying them at all times while at the office, during fieldwork and at home. Even in countries that were reasonably politically stable at the time, violent crime was on the rise in urban areas. Personally, my most harrowing moment occurred in Lusaka, Zambia. As I was driving to pick up my five-year-old son at a birthday party, I was car-jacked at gun point. Luckily it all turned out fine, but again, the incident reinforced my commitment to safety and security.

Can you tell us about some of your work with CARE in sub-Saharan Africa?

Sarah Kambou: I gained my initial experience in Africa working as a senior program officer for CARE. Over the course of 11 years, I rotated through five CARE country offices: Togo, Zambia, Ethiopia, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire. Through CARE, I conducted some fascinating social science research on adolescent sexuality in poor urban settings, the practice of female genital cutting, and the vulnerability of mobile and mobility-affected populations to HIV. Even though I left CARE in 2002 to join ICRW, I’ve continued to collaborate with CARE on research exploring how to design gender-responsive health services and program interventions.

On a personal level, why does women’s empowerment matter to you?

Sarah Kambou: Women’s empowerment matters to me because women are half the population and, put simply, are people whose human rights have not been respected or fulfilled for far too long.

Around the world, and still in many ways here in the U.S., women and girls are subjected to unfair gender norms that do little more than serve as barriers. From child marriage to gender-based violence to unfair land and titling practices that affect the land and property women can inherit, women worldwide have been subject to barriers that serve to keep them in their place. It’s important to me to tackle these barriers by challenging the deeply-rooted gender norms that lie at the bottom of nearly every inequitable policy and practice.

Can you talk about one woman who has impacted your life?

Sarah Kambou: One of the greatest influences on my life has been my maternal grandmother, Mildred Stiles, who was a matriarch and feminist. Trained as a concert pianist, she turned to teaching English in high school in the post-Depression, post-war era. She raised three daughters, contributed to her community and lived a long, independent life. She made me feel loved and special, but expected me to work hard.

What are your favorite books, websites, films and resources on women’s issues and international development?

Sarah Kambou: This is a great question! Websites and other resources I would recommend are:

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