Pelagie Boko-Collins, Sightsavers’ neglected tropical disease manager for Benin and Togo, is paving the way for more women and girls to lead in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.
“I chose to specialise in entomology – the study of insects – as at the time it was the only opportunity I could see for my research to have an impact on the community,” she explains. “For me, it is very important to see the positive impact of my research on the community in terms of development and good health.”
For the first eight years of her career, Pelagie worked on malaria vector control with Benin’s Ministry of Health. After hearing a lecture about NTDs from Professor David Molyneux, emeritus professor and former director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, she realised there were many diseases spread by insects, such as river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, that needed attention to free her country from the cycle of poverty and burden of disease.
“After I finished my course, I contacted the Benin Ministry of Health,” Pelagie says. “I asked if there was an NTD department, because I had never heard of that before studying at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. They said there was an opportunity, but they didn’t have enough technical staff.
“So after I finished my master’s degree in Liverpool, I returned home and joined the NTD programme team. It was very exciting and inspiring to see leaders involved in NTDs, and be able to learn from them and work in the field.”
Yet she also faced challenges: in Benin, the NTD sector is dominated by men. “From the beginning, I faced being told: ‘This is a man’s job, you cannot do this. It’s too risky for you as a woman,’” she says. “It’s quite frustrating to hear that because I think, ‘Did I fail?’ No, I did not. I can do the same tasks as a man and I cannot accept being told that as a woman, you have a limitation, and I challenge that all the time.
“In my country, the stereotypes of women are not subtle at all. For example, before I started my job at Sightsavers a former colleague said: ‘That’s a man’s job. Are you sure you can do it? Are you ready for the sacrifice?’ Here, if a woman wants to succeed beyond the common expectations, the pressure is always there to tell you that it is not your place. It takes great determination to continue the fight to overcome it.
“Women need to break this barrier and have the power to break the barrier, but until then, there is little hope of equality. Women need to believe in each other to end the inequality.”
To help break the bias against women and push against gender-related stereotypes, Pelagie is a member of the Women and Science for the Developing World network. The group helps women to obtain scholarships, so they can progress academically and achieve great success in science.
“We’ve recently launched our local chapter,” she says. “What we’re trying to achieve is to bring women from the local university to understand that they can go further than they’re made to believe. We help them to get funding to continue their studies and progress in their area.
“Having been at Sightsavers for two years, I’ve shown other women it’s feasible to succeed both personally and have a family and a job. Just because you have a family or are a woman, it shouldn’t stop you from having ambition and applying to your dream job. You can’t succeed by staying in your comfort zone; you’ve got to go beyond it. By accepting that, and trying to succeed, every day is part of my action to break the barriers.
“There are many women who are trying hard to do just that as well. I always look up to Michelle Obama for what she’s achieved and how she’s impacted many women and girls around the world. I also admire Marie-Elise Gbèdo because she was the first female presidential candidate in our country during a time when it was not possible for a woman to run for president. The stereotypes she faced when she was a candidate were unbelievable. But she faced the challenges and fought all the time.
“I think there’s still a lot to do to break the bias and I know my country is not unique when it comes to this. I believe that if we women keep fighting, we will win and overcome one day.”