Banchi Dessalegn: My vision for MSI Africa

Leave no one behind   |   22 April 2022   |   5 min read

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In February, Banchi Dessalegn Ph.D. was appointed as MSI’s Africa Director.

In this article, Banchi shares her motivations for taking on the role and her vision for the region.

Since I took on this role, I’ve been speaking with many of my 4,500 strong team here about my vision for the African continent. And I tell them, it’s simple: we’re here to deliver for our women.

Growing up in Addis Ababa, the lack of access to information and services was hard to ignore. Someone I knew committed suicide after becoming pregnant because she didn’t know where to turn. Another girl disappeared from class one day and never came back. Later we heard rumours that she had drunk bleach to end her pregnancy. To this day, I don’t know whether she lived or died.

When my family and I moved to the US in my teens, I found out about Planned Parenthood, and the injustice struck me hard. Had the girls I’d been at school with had access to those services, they’d still be alive today.

I don’t tell these stories very often – I prefer to focus on positive and empowering stories from my home country – but that sense of inequity started a fire in me that’s still burning today. It’s why I joined MSI seven years ago. And it’s why I’ve taken on this new role.

No woman should be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term; and no woman should die due to pregnancy or childbirth. But right now, there are still women and girls across the continent who are denied access to the care they need and forced to resort to unsafe abortion. That’s why, here at MSI Africa, we are determined to make our vision a reality. We are creating a sustainable social business that together with governments and the public and private healthcare sectors will protect and accelerate access to sexual and reproductive healthcare. We are forging a path that doesn’t rely on donor funding; a path that leads to full national ownership of sexual and reproductive healthcare; a path that ensures access for the most marginalised communities on our continent. That path will be different for each country, but we want to be able to tell any client coming for a service for the first time: “you’ve got access now, you’ll never have to go back”.

I have seen how reproductive choice can mean the difference between getting an education or not, between being able to make choices about your life or having your future pre-determined. I have also seen how it impacts the next generation. When I was outreach lead in Ethiopia, I met a man who had come for a vasectomy. I asked him, why is this important to you and he told me how his son was a brilliant student and had the chance to go to university but had turned the offer down to help his parents support their other children. He told me: “I feel ashamed that because of me, my son has been forced to make this choice about his future.”

These stories are too common. But MSI is an organisation where you can truly change lives for the better, not just in the short term, but in ways that will serve people for years to come. And when I look at my team, I know we can achieve this. We share a pride in our continent, a commitment to our people, and a belief that we can overcome any obstacle ahead. COVID-19 could have taken us back decades in terms of access to sexual and reproductive health services, but we were able to move forward, because we have a wealth of talented people, with a deep understanding of the context and the challenges where they work, supported by a global network that enables the exchange of innovations and learnings across our programmes.

Since I started at MSI in 2015, we have already transformed the way we work. In many countries we have reduced the services we provide directly and are instead supporting access through the public sector. In others, we are an extension of the health system, an on-the-ground partner providing services to women in communities where there are no clinics. As much as we are a global organisation, we are also owned and shaped by each of the countries in which we operate. Our teams have such rich knowledge and insights to share, and a big part of my role is supporting and nurturing that talent and making sure their voices guide where we go as an organisation over the next decade. These are the future leaders of MSI, both in Africa and globally, and I know that together we will deliver for our women.

Banchi Dessalegn Ph.D., MSI Reproductive Choices’ Africa Director


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