Produced by Women Deliver October 31, 2016

A Q&A with Gary Cohen: Advancing the Role of the Private Sector to Deliver for Girls and Women



No individual, organization or sector can solve major global health and development challenges alone. But how we can work together to improve the health, rights and well-being of women and girls everywhere?

That question was at the center of a recent conversation between Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen, Executive Vice President and President, Global Health and Development at BD (Becton, Dickinson & Co.) and Founder of Together for Girls Gary Cohen.

Founder of Together for Girls, Gary Cohen

Iversen: Together for Girls is a Public-Private partnership. I don’t think people normally think of the private sector as being part of the solution to ending violence against girls. Can you explain your motivation, as Executive Vice President of BD a medical technology company, for starting Together for Girls and taking on this issue?

Cohen: I agree, people wouldn’t normally think that a private sector leader would choose to mobilize a partnership to address a social justice issue such as ending violence against girls. How and why I chose to do this was an outcome of experiences I had in sub-Saharan Africa. In the 2003 to 2008 time frame I was traveling frequently to Africa, associated with my private sector role, mostly to support the HIV & AIDS response by strengthening health systems and improving conditions for health workers, and accomplishing this through cross-sector collaboration. I kept coming across a disturbing fact and observation; among young people who were infected with HIV, about three-quarters were female (girls and young women) and one-quarter were male (boys and young men).

It was clear that these girls weren’t being infected by their age-counterpart boys; they were being infected by older men. It opened my eyes to the problem of sexual coercion, abuse, exploitation, rape and trafficking that causes girls not only to be exposed to life-threatening infectious diseases but also results in so many other health problems such as maternal mortality, chronic depression, substance abuse and suicide. Then I started to inquire about what was being done to address this. I learned that while there was a substantial community of people working on gender-based violence, few if any were focusing specifically on the problem of sexual violence against girls, even though over 50% of all instances of sexual abuse affected girls 15 and younger. In the absence of finding an organization that was clearly focused on this issue, I decided to start one, which became Together for Girls.  Today we’re working in 22 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America and the Caribbean.

Iversen: There is still a lot of public skepticism in some groups when it comes to private sector’s involvement in the developments sphere, but the reality is that addressing the barriers to gender equality, such as violence, child marriage, lack of educational opportunities,  lack of ability for women to control their fertility,  is everybody’s business and to everyone’s benefit. But more generally, what in your opinion role can the private sector play in addressing these issues and what do they have to gain

Cohen: I understand that when people think of social development, human rights and justice, they don’t normally think about the private sector as a role model, and they may in fact think the opposite.  But I believe the facts are very different, particularly when it involves companies that operate globally. In my experience, many global companies are actively promoting gender equality and diversity, because doing so is essential for them to attract talent and maintain a harmonious workforce. If you think about how a global company needs to operate, there can be no tolerance for prejudice and other forms of bias, because people need to work effectively and productively together regardless of their country of origin, gender, religion, age, etc. I’m not saying this means that everyone who works in a company is unbiased, human nature and culture being what it is, but the policies and forces that operate within global companies are strongly oriented towards equality and against bias.

This is the experience I’ve had working for 33 years in a company that now has 50,000 employees from all over the world, things have clearly progressed in the right direction.  Also, almost all industries depend on social stability; problems such as violence, prejudice, conflict and war are at odds with the operating conditions companies need to be successful.I think there is growing recognition that companies can play an instrumental role in advancing progress on social issues, because doing so aligns with their self-interest, and they have greater influence over governments than the social sector has. From what I’ve seen, the private sector is doing at as much to advance the rights and opportunities for women as any other sector is doing, but much more still needs to be done to achieve the goals we’re seeking.

"In the private sector, companies need to modify and tailor their policies to be more conducive to the advancement of women in the workplace.  Many companies are doing this but the changes haven’t been in place long enough to show the type of results that people are seeking, including a much higher proportion of women in senior leadership and board roles."

- Gary Cohen


Iversen: One of the things Women Deliver feels very strongly about is the need to change the public narrative around girls & women, from victims and vulnerable to essential, and powerful, drivers of progress. How can the private sector help do that?

Cohen: At the risk of sounding overly philosophical, I think this needs to start first in families, with fathers, mothers and other caretakers making it absolutely clear to their daughters (and sons) that girls have as much opportunity for success and impact as boys do, and the family will fully support them in reaching their full human potential.  This needs to be reinforced through active support of educational opportunities for girls, which is a major problem in some countries, though substantial progress has been made in many countries.  In the private sector, companies need to modify and tailor their policies to be more conducive to the advancement of women in the workplace.  Many companies are doing this but the changes haven’t been in place long enough to show the type of results that people are seeking, including a much higher proportion of women in senior leadership and board roles.

Similar goals exist for increasing the diversity of workforces and leaders in companies, beyond gender.  I think in the private sector things have progressed much farther over the past several decades than most people realize with respect to gender equality policies and practices, but we can’t yet feel satisfied with the outcomes of this progress, as more still needs to be done to advance opportunities for women, particularly at senior leadership levels.  And at the same time there are things happening in broader society that feel like big setbacks, or cause us to question whether any progress has really been made, such as all the revelations emerging in the current U.S. presidential election.  As disheartening as this, I do think progress has been made, and I strongly believe that promoting women’s equality, empowerment and advancement in the workplace will continue to be a high priority for most companies.

Iversen: Along those same lines, we are trying to draw attention away from focusing on the “problems” in order to drive attention to the solutions, that we know can work, and are working. Together for Girls works in a number of countries, can you give an example of some successful innovative initiative that could potentially be replicated  elsewhere?

Cohen: Let’s start with the Together for Girls model itself, which has proven very successful. It began in Swaziland and is being replicated in all the countries where we work.  We start with data, doing national-level Violence Against Children Surveys (VACS), and then focus on solutions, bringing together a range of sectors and actors to develop national plans of action. Although we tend to think of problems vertically, complicated issues like violence need to be solved horizontally—and that’s what we do. We bring together actors and sectors that would not be working together otherwise to think big and create changes at scale.

We also recognize and learn from the small programs and leaders who are making a difference on the ground. That’s why every year, during the 16 days of activism against gender based violence, Together for Girls features 16 heroes that are making a difference by preventing and responding to violence. One of our heroes last year was Anuradha Koirala, founder and executive director of Maiti Nepal, a non-profit that works to end domestic violence, trafficking and sexual exploitation in Nepal through a program of border surveillance involving 12 intervention outposts.

These outposts serve as safe houses, providing temporary shelter and care until the girls can get to Kathmandu, to Koirala’s home. The volunteers running the safe houses are survivors themselves, having been rescued from Indian brothels by other Maiti workers. At the outposts, they coordinate with Nepali law enforcement to watch for suspicious activity and to help identify traffickers. Because of their work, hundreds of offenders have been sent to jail. The work of Maiti Nepal has prevented an estimated 45,000 children and women from being trafficked. Our next list of heroes will be released on December 5, 2016.

"Men need to be engaged in passing and enforcing laws to protect women and girls from violence, and need to champion changes in the judicial and criminal justice systems to achieve high conviction rates for perpetrators."

- Gary Cohen

Iversen: As long as girls and women fear for their safety, they cannot realize their full potential. Securing their dignity rests upon eliminating the threat of gender-based violence and harmful practices everywhere. In your opinion, what role do men play in eliminating the threat that, rather than perpetuating it?

Cohen: This question goes to the heart of why I founded Together for Girls. As we work to empower women and girls, epidemic levels of violence, particularly sexual violence, occurring in society must be addressed for empowerment goals to be achieved.  I often say that the first reproductive right is the right to not be raped. From data generated by Together for Girls and our partners, under the leadership of national governments, we know that the first sexual experience for 25% or more of girls was forced, and approximately 30% of girls who experienced forced sex had an unwanted pregnancy as a result. In countries with high HIV prevalence rates, girls who experienced sexual violence were nearly four times more likely to contract HIV.  How can we expect these girls to practice safe sex or abstinence, or educate them on family planning, if they are being raped, impregnated and infected?  What I personally learned about these situations - first-hand from girls themselves – is testimony to the depravity of human behavior.

And yes, this is almost entirely perpetrated by men. Therefore, by definition, men need to be engaged in eliminating this threat. We need to ensure that girls who experience sexual violence can achieve justice. That occurs too rarely today, more often, girls who seek justice are further shamed and victimized.  Men need to be engaged in passing and enforcing laws to protect women and girls from violence, and need to champion changes in the judicial and criminal justice systems to achieve high conviction rates for perpetrators.  From our data we also know that men who were victims of violence themselves as children are twice as likely to become perpetrators as adults. We need to address these social underpinnings of violence, including within families, which condition men to become violent.

For more content on how to end gender based violence and other harmful practices please please click here.

About Gary Cohen

Gary Cohen is Executive Vice President and President, Global Health and Development at BD (Becton, Dickinson & Co), a global medical technology company operating in 150 countries with over 45,000 employees.  Mr. Cohen is also board chair and founder of Together for Girls, a partnership of five UN agencies, the governments of the United States and Canada and other partners to end violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.  Additionally, Mr. Cohen serves as board co-chair of GBCHealth and a board director of the Perrigo Company, CDC Foundation, US Fund for UNICEF and Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children.  He is a member of the UN Secretary General’s Network of Engaged Men Leaders and previously served as a Commissioner on the UN Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children. 

Mr. Cohen frequently serves as an expert speaker and advocate on advancing health, human rights and social justice in various venues including the United Nations, World Bank, U.S. Department of State, Clinton Global Initiative and World Economic Forum.  He and the BD team engage in public-private sector collaboration with international agencies, governments and non-government organizations to strengthen health systems, address infectious and non-communicable diseases, reduce maternal and newborn mortality, end gender-based violence and improve safety for health workers and patients.  Mr. Cohen holds B.A. and M.B.A. degrees from Rutgers University and previously served on its board of trustees.

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