Sono Aibe ’81

Gender Equity on a Global Scale

by Kate Dunlop
Sono Aibe ’81 advocates to give girls and women a voice in policymaking and health care
When Sono Aibe was a young Japanese expat living in Hong Kong, her elementary school teacher said she should become a social worker — someone who protects vulnerable children and supports families. Aibe is still not sure what her teacher saw that made her say that, though perhaps it was the way that, even then, she lived the principle that everyone is connected to each other.
 
For more than three decades, after senior-year public health classes at Harvard shifted her passion and plan away from medical school to global public health, Aibe, a global health professional, has made it her purpose to focus on women’s reproductive health and rights in the nonprofit sector through program planning, fundraising, and project implementation. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, she traveled frequently to work with partners in Africa and Asia.
 
“I'm truly committed to gender equity and making sure that more women and girls are included in policymaking and that they are not dying of preventable illnesses — that they are able to go to school and get into meaningful jobs and careers,” Aibe says.
 
Her work, in collaboration with others, has yielded results to celebrate, including new contraceptive methods that increase access for women who may live far from a clinic; government recognition of community health care workers as an essential part of the health care system; and a vocal generation of informed young people who advocate for the services they need. She points to Rwanda and Burkina Faso as countries where government investment in community health has made a positive difference, noting, “I wish more people in the U.S. could learn about these countries and understand how important it is for governments to invest in health systems and universal health coverage and have the ambition that nobody should be without health care. It’s such a fundamental rights issue.”
 
Serving every woman who needs care is still a daunting task given the lack of infrastructure in many countries, and some days are truly tough. Working through interpreters, navigating bureaucratic red tape, and understanding different perspectives — whether individual or governmental — can be difficult, but Aibe finds solace and fellowship in a worldwide network of friends and colleagues with whom she compares notes and shares successes that can be replicated.
 
Early in 2021, Aibe joined Preston-Werner Ventures, a philanthropic venture that supports social justice and climate change initiatives. As the company’s program manager for public health, she’s begun exploring the intersection of women's health and rights with climate and gender justice. An example is the early pandemic-induced lockdowns, which wreaked havoc on women and girls across the globe by suspending access to health care and schools, trapping them in abusive homes, and, in some cases, forcing families to marry daughters off to make ends meet in a collapsed economy. There are, Aibe says, particular vulnerabilities that women and girls have in any circumstance, but particularly when there are shocks to the system such as a pandemic or climate change.
 
The global scope of Aibe’s work has put her on the global stage, too, and she has spoken at many conferences about a project she worked on for seven years, examining the intersection of gender roles and responsibilities, reproductive health and natural resource management at the household level in rural Uganda and Kenya. This kind of holistic thinking and silo breaking is what she wants to be known for.
 
“I feel like I am the ultimate networker and weaver of networks,” says Aibe. “I have always been a sort of peacekeeper, and maintain friendships with lots of people. I love to connect people and different issues to work on together.”
 
Perhaps, she considers, that is why her elementary school teacher thought she could make a difference in social work. And that is just what Aibe has done through her life’s work — on a grander scale than that teacher likely ever imagined.
 
“I was able to stay the course and work in the nonprofit world to make sure that all people have an equal chance at life and health,” she says. “Maybe that is a sort of higher calling, though I had not thought about it that way until now. But it is definitely my purpose.”

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