In his second decade of leading international work at a successful Fortune 500 company, Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President of the global medical technology company BD, found himself coming up on a “consistent, concerning problem.”
Through his company’s support of health systems strengthening and expanding HIV/AIDS diagnostic capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa in the mid-2000s, Cohen discovered that girls and young women were being disproportionately infected with HIV compared to boys and young men. The more he dug into the unique vulnerabilities and circumstances impacting girls, the more he learned of the other unjust “social underpinnings” of the disease spread that he could not ignore.
Adolescent girls and young women subjected to sexual violence were being affected in many devastating ways; such as contracting infectious diseases, having unwanted pregnancies, dying in childbirth, experiencing chronic depression and dropping out of school. Cohen was alarmed to learn that “over half of all sexual assaults were committed against girls fifteen and younger.” Through these findings, he realized “…that five perhaps even six of the eight Millennium Development Goals were impaired by this problem… [and] he felt something needed to be done.”
In 2009, in the absence of finding an organization that exclusively focused its efforts on addressing sexual violence programming around girls, he convened what is now the Together for Girls partnership. Together for Girls is a cross-sector collaboration between the private sector, six UN agencies including UNICEF, UNAIDS, UNFPA, UN Women, the World Health Organization, and the Special Representative to the Secretary General on Violence Against Children (SRSG VAC), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), USAID, the U.S. Department of State, the Government of Canada and other partners to mobilize a three-pillar methodology to address gender based violence and violence against children, particularly sexual violence against girls.
Fast forward to today, Together for Girls operates in 20+ countries across Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. Through the leadership of national governments, the CDC and other partners, Together for Girls has collected data on over 10% of the world’s youth population aged 13-24 using the Violence Against Children Survey (VACS), which are led by CDC as part of the Together for Girls Partnership. These gender-disaggregated data help better inform preventative advocacy and action plans for the public, private and government sectors when considering how to end sexual violence against girls and boys around the world.
With the current women’s movement in full revival, and during the United Nation’s 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, Global Daily sat down with Cohen to hear more about his motivation for creating Together for Girls and how we can engage more men in these important conversations around preventing sexual harassment/assault today. This interview has been lightly edited to fit Global Daily’s format.
Global Daily: How can we bring more men like yourself into conversations around disrupting the cycles of violence against girls?
Gary: There are a few factors at play here. I didn’t come to this issue expecting to become a women’s advocate. I didn’t think of myself as an advocate for any particular population group, in fact. But what I was and still am is someone who has an absolute intolerance for injustice. The circumstances fueling the magnitude of the HIV epidemic on girls and young women were, and sadly still are, devastating. Therefore, I was willing to go way outside of my comfort zone to do something about it and take on a very challenging issue. So, part of this is identifying the men who have an orientation towards fighting injustice.
It’s critical that more men perceive the opportunity and recognize the positive side of empowering and enabling girls – which ultimately becomes enabling to the world. Data shows that when adolescent girls earn money, they invest significantly more resources into their families and communities compared with boys. Another study showed that for every 10% of additional girls kept in school, the GDP of a country goes up by .3%. It’s known. It’s proven. Adolescents girls are key for the future of their countries and for the world.
Global Daily: On the heels of the current women’s movement around #Metoo and #TimesUp, what personal changes have you noticed in the way men are navigating women’s empowerment?
Gary: This is a tough issue in my opinion in the sense that this is a fundamental correction to expectations of behavior. Part of dealing with this issue has been raising the specter of consequences. Men were able to get away with this behavior because they didn’t face consequences. And consequences are the reason women and girls didn’t speak up, because if they did, there was a high likelihood that they would be further victimized.
And by the way, we can’t only talk in past tense, it’s still that way today. To me, that’s what #MeToo is changing. It’s establishing a set of standards of behavior and conduct. If it’s known that perpetrators will be shamed, potentially prosecuted and could lose their job, behavior will change, and over time the changes in behavior will be what adjusts mindset. People assume that you have to change mindset to change behavior – when in fact you have to change behavior to change mindset. So, I see what’s happening now as forcing that change in behavior, requiring men to exhibit self-control. That’s how I look at it.
Global Daily: Have you seen a difference in the way corporations engage (or don’t) in this current women’s movement? Are you seeing progress?
Gary: I’m more encouraged in the progress companies are making in pushing, promoting and pursuing gender diversity, which I don’t think is an outcome of the #MeToo movement, though it supports it. It is something that started prior to that, and it’s an unstoppable force now, and it’s great.
Companies are recognizing that it’s in their own interest and the interest of their workforces to be able to create environments that enable women to be fully successful and achieve their human potential working within the company.
Relative to #MeToo, for better or worse, there’s some fear out there. Companies don’t want to be the associated in any way with having environments that are conducive towards harassment. [I think companies are resetting] expectations about what’s appropriate and not appropriate in work environments and are creating circumstances that are empowering rather than encumbering and disabling to women. It is also about men realizing that even an inappropriate touch or an inappropriate signal can put a woman, particularly earlier in their career, into a circumstance where they really start to feel insecure and question ‘what does it really take to be successful in this environment.’ That’s when the distortion occurs and it shouldn’t be allowed to occur. It’s wrong.
Global Daily: How can women and men unite to address gender equality, disrupt cycles of violence and, ultimately, approach these complex issues together? What’s your call to action moving forward?
Gary: Let me say this; and it’s not a direct answer. I had lunch some years back with Desmond Tutu in London and he put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘My Jewish friends told me that God created the world imperfect so that we would devote ourselves to healing it.’ I tend to believe, irrespective of ones’ spiritual beliefs or lack thereof, that we must accept that we live in a world filled with problems and that makes us responsible, individually and collectively, for devoting ourselves to fixing them. We will never solve all of them, but if we are not working as hard as we can on them, then in my opinion, we’re not fulfilling what we’re meant to do. And there’s great satisfaction in doing this, in being a personal force for good in the world. So, I think that’s also part of the effort.
And I think younger generations are much more appropriately balanced on these issues than earlier generations were. I see it in my own kids. They are just much more tolerant – they’re intolerant of intolerance.
At the same time, there are new problems in the world that are very threatening and concerning. There are places still where the abuses that women and girls are subjected to are almost too horrific to even talk about. So, there’s a lot that still needs to be done.
Global Daily: Final question: who is your girl hero?
Gary: Well first, I have two daughters… and they’re incredible. They’ve grown up to become remarkable women. My two daughters are 27 and 22, and my son is 20. All three of them are great human beings. I’m not taking any credit for that. They grew up right.
And what I say is ‘strong mothers push their daughters forward and strong fathers don’t hold them back.’ And I think the role of a father in the self-esteem and self-confidence of a daughter is important. Traditional values, I would say outdated values, might have fathers defining the role of their daughters as being predefined and limited. And that gets embedded from an early age and it confines what many girls may grow up to aspire doing or see themselves doing. When fathers don’t limit and hold-back their daughters, when they give them confidence, let them know they can achieve whatever they seek to achieve, you then see girls and young women just flourish.
About Gary Cohen
Gary Cohen, Executive Vice President, Global Health, BD (Becton, Dickinson and Company); President, BD Foundation; Board Chair and Founder, Together for Girls; Board Co-Chair, GBCHealth; Board Director, CDC Foundation; Board Director, UNICEF USA
Mr. Cohen is also a board director of the Perrigo Company and Chair of the CDC Corporate Roundtable on Global Health Threats. He previously served on the UN Commission on Life Saving Commodities for Women and Children and is a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Network of Engaged Men Leaders, and he serves on the Scientific Advisory Board of Grand Challenges Canada.
Mr. Cohen and BD engage in extensive cross-sector collaboration to address unmet health needs globally, working with international agencies, governments and non-government organizations, focused on specific health goals such strengthening clinical and laboratory practices, safely immunizing children, addressing infectious and non-communicable diseases, reducing maternal and newborn mortality, combating antimicrobial resistance and improving safety for health workers and patients. He frequently serves as an expert speaker and advocate on advancing health and human rights, in various venues including the United Nations, Vatican, World Bank, World Health Assembly, U.S. Department of State and World Economic Forum-Davos. He has been honored for his humanitarian work by MESAB (Medical Education for South African Blacks), B’nai B’rith International, UNICEF USA, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, the American Jewish Committee and the Nymbani Home for HIV positive children in Kenya. Mr. Cohen holds B.A. and an M.B.A. degrees from Rutgers University and previously served on the university’s board of trustees. In 2016 he was named a Rutgers 250 Fellow in association with the university’s 250th anniversary.