Q&A with Nureyan Zunong, Advisor, Humanitarian Health, Save the Children US

We spoke with Nureyan Zunong, Advisor, Humanitarian Health, Save the Children US, and one of the members of our 2020 Leadership Journey. Read our Q&A to learn about her Leadership Journey Project in South Sudan, who inspires her, and how COVID-19 has shifted her focus of work.


What is your Leadership Journey Project and why did you choose it?

My leadership project is to simplify supervision tools for Integrated Community Case Management (ICCM) in South Sudan so that people who aren’t educated can also perform the required task of a supervisor. If this project is successful, which I hope it is, it will lead to many positive outcomes for women and the community, including better financial opportunities for women and their families, the opportunity for community members to see women in leadership positions, and even to better quality of care.

CCM is a strategy to deliver life-saving, curative interventions for common childhood illnesses in areas where there is little access to facility-based services.  In South Sudan, Save the Children has been implementing ICCM projects for the past few years, working with over 500 community health workers, all of whom are female, and about 40 community health worker supervisors – and they are all male. This statistic is not only shocking, but it has economic and social impacts: community health workers aren’t paid but the supervisors are. It’s not that women aren’t qualified for the supervisor role – they do have the practical experience and expertise. Instead, it’s because a requirement for the position is to know how to read and write to complete monthly reports, standard checklists and other various tasks. In South Sudan, most women are not educated or if they are, they tend to leave the communities where they are from.


What has surprised you about the WomenLift Health Leadership Journey experience?

One thing that surprised me is that despite being such a diverse group of women, we have so much in common. This is in part because we’re all female and working in global health, but more so in the work we’re trying to accomplish, the dynamics we’re trying to dismantle and the outcomes we’re trying to achieve. I’m amazed by how much experience this group brings together. Another thing that pleasantly surprised me is that everyone is so generous in sharing their knowledge and experience. I’m constantly learning in all of our touch points, from the small group discussions to one-off conversations in our WhatsApp group. I honestly don’t know how I worked without this support system in the past! We have built a community of trust so that everyone can share openly, and it has really helped steer me in the right direction and contributed to solving issues I’m facing.


How has COVID shifted the focus of your work?

I think the real question is how the pandemic hasn’t shifted the focus of my work! COVID-19 dramatically impacted all aspects of my role as a Health Advisor. Last year, I planned 6-7 country visits, in addition to possible deployments to emerging humanitarian situations. I was only able to complete one trip before all non-essential travel was canceled. In terms of supporting country offices, once the pandemic hit, we focused on ensuring people could implement the project in a COVID-safe manner. We looked at access to essential health services from the perspective of the people who needed these services but also from the point of view of the provider to ensure these services weren’t putting anyone at risk of contracting the virus. As new humanitarian crises arose, I was limited to working with colleagues who were already on the ground, supporting them through Zoom or phone calls.

Last year I also had the opportunity to represent Save the Children and support the Global Health Cluster COVID-19 task team to help develop guidance for people to use in a humanitarian context when they need to prioritize essential services in low-resource settings. As you can imagine, it was challenging in many ways, but a very rewarding experience to help support this critically important work. In short, last year changed everything, not only in how we work but also in how we prioritize.   


How can we ensure that women are at the center of not only COVID recovery plans but also long-term strategies for the improvement of health?

Traditionally, recovery plans and strategy-development are always led by certain groups of experts. Globally, we have a set of criteria for who should be on decision-making task forces. But this “traditional expert” doesn’t always have the full insight on what needs to happen on the ground.  They might be able to provide resources, help generate ideas and offer expertise, but at the end of the day, the people facing the problem need to be part of developing the solution. This is all part of growing calls to decolonize global health – ensuring people’s voices on the ground are heard and represented at the table. I’m glad this idea has made its way to the global agenda and that people are starting to pay attention.

Women make up 70% of the health workforce but comprise just 25% of leadership positions. That is a huge gap and one that needs to be fixed – and this can only happen when women’s perspectives are heard. When we think about long-term COVID response strategies, we need to work with the people on the frontlines, who are mostly women, so they can bring their unique perspectives and workable solutions to the challenges we’re facing. We need the people with the lived experiences to be the voices shaping and ultimately owning the solution.


Who inspires you?

I’ve always been inspired by my grandmother who was a traditional birth attendant. When I was a kid, I used to go to people’s houses when she delivered babies and these experiences really motivated me to become involved in the health field. Her hands were full back then – she had eight children of her own and she performed traditional duties as a woman in the house – but even still, she was able to do something specifically for herself and contribute to the community. At a young age, she taught me that I could do more with my life than just work in the household.

In the past year especially, I’ve also been inspired by my friends, colleagues and working mothers. They somehow manage a full-time job with the additional burden of childcare responsibilities and household chores given schools and daycares are all closed. They’re doing more than one person’s job all under one roof – it’s not easy and I’m inspired by their heroic work.,