Dr. Gaya Gamhewage

Dr. Gaya Gamhewage

World Health Organisation, Geneva – Infectious Hazard Management & Risk Communications | Switzerland

I have influence in all the categories, maybe except Artist or Muse, but I feel that my ability to influence through my Professional life is strongest and most powerful.

As a senior expert in the World Health Organization, I have an incredibly large network of people who themselves are influencers. With considerable experience and by building a good reputation in my professional life, my views are usually listened to and often respected, but most importantly, I have developed my own personal ways of influencing others for ideas and values I believe in. I have also been able to create my own workstyle and leadership that marry modern management approaches with my spiritual background in Buddhism.

Be relentless in the pursuit of excellence in the service to others; be creative and challenge the status quo; be kind and take your team (and your community) with you.

My story is not extraordinary. It is similar to that of many other women and men who have used challenges to grow. Experience is a tough but effective teacher. First, you get the test, and the lessons come afterwards.

I faced racial discrimination as a teenager and became keenly aware of the power dynamics around me, even at a very young age. I developed “social intelligence” and became a good problem solver.  I knew education was the only way out and up for me and my family.

Like many of you, I have known family hardship. I experienced discrimination and racism. I have worked in poor villages and communities at war. I had to grow up fast to support my family and took a winding road to get to where I am today. I had to make tough choices about love, marriage, children, career, where I work, when I speak up, and when I hold my tongue.

My greatest assets were that my parents and family made me believe that there was nothing I could not accomplish. My mother taught me a deep sense of responsibility and ethics, taught me never to give up and always try to do my best. My father believed in me without reservation. My family gave me great work ethics and my Buddhist heritage provided the rest. I was naturally an over-achiever and competitive. I had to learn to use my considerable natural energy and drive wisely and not wantonly.

Living in different cultures was a challenge. I was born in Sri Lanka, grew up in England, spent 10 years in china and I have been based in Switzerland for the past 17 years, from where I have travelled for missions to more than 50 countries. Travelling and also the clash of cultures in all this have been undoubtedly hard, but they have taught me more than I could have ever learn otherwise.

One of my biggest professional challenge was the transition from being a high performing professional and expert to becoming a leader worthy of my team. I had to tame my anger at injustice and discrimination, my natural tendency to be anti-establishment, and I had to learn how to have patience.  It took a long time to understand that I too had biases and that I had to let go of my ideas to achieve bigger goals.

My career has been marked by many extraordinary events. I work in the public sector: we do not look at individual career achievement, but team and organizational ones. Some such that are close to my heart are:

1. Working as the Director of Sri Lanka’s largest NGO, Sarvodaya, in 15,000 villages. The most remarkable project I ran there was to help through community-based rehabilitation 5,000 children from 200 villages in war zones.

2. During the Ebola outbreak of 204-2016 in West Africa, as senior official in the World Health organization, I led all trainings for the international and national workforce that helped bring the deadly outbreak under control.

3. Creating and running with my team the WHO’s first-ever free, massive online platform to take science and knowledge to front-line workers who work in health mergences

4. Being a role-model within my Organization, and a an elected staff representative for a new type of a woman-leader, my own management style and the ability to attract great professionals, men and women alike, to work with me.

5. Creating opportunities for young people to become “global citizens” through my volunteer work and my “Amazing Youth project”

1. Women are unfortunately also guilty of keeping women back. They do not support younger women to deal with discrimination and bias. They do not speak up when women get treated with disrespect. 

2. The traditional ways in which girls tend to be socialized must change. Even when girls are sent to school, the division of work and play at home is very gender-specific, and often disadvantageous to women. This undermines women’s self-belief as to their ability to shape their lives and the world.

3. Emotional and ethical choices that women have to face while balancing private and professional lives have both structural and cultural challenges. These must be proactively addressed.

4. Male-dominated organizational cultures have to be challenged so that women managers and leaders are allowed to try things out that are different. Women have their own styles and approaches.

5. Women are being educated and trained for today’s jobs, not for the future they will face.

6. Women’s biology and physiology (related to reproduction, menopause, etc.) can really affect women’s performance and choices. This must be thought through and creative solutions should be found.

Women of professional standing have a duty to help other women and role-model desirable behavior in the workplace.

Our leadership should not mimic the men’s one, but instead we should have the courage to create our own paths and act in a way that is authentic to ourselves.

We have to use our professional voice to influence not only our fields of expertise, but reach beyond to voice our views on important issues of our times.

We should at all times, build coalitions of women and men around important issues and bring our professional skills to bear in addressing the problems of humanity at large. 

Women as a global force, can shape how their partners, children, families, customers, clients, networks and their teams are “socialized” to create a more just and respectful world.

Believe in yourself. Find a goal that ignites your passion and your creativity. Channel your best energy towards that. Feel pride, not arrogance. Be relentless and patient. Learn to balance the different parts of your life. Do not let guilt, fear or self-doubt invade your inner space. Develop yourself while serving others. Be strong. Do not forget to be kind. Connect with others.  Alone you are just a human. Together we are a power that can change the world.

Traditional bio:

Dr. Gaya Gamhewage, is head of Support for Response in the Infectious Hazard Management department of WHO’s Health Emergency programme, based at WHO Headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. 
A medical doctor by training, she is currently responsible for cross-cutting interventions for epidemic and pandemic response.

Dr. Gamhewage has more than two decades of experience in public health including 15 years at WHO.

During the H1N1 Pandemic in 2009, she led the risk communication operations at global level, and was later head of corporate communications and risk communication capacity building. She leads a programme that supports governments across the world build sustainable risk communications capacity as required by the International health regulations (2005), the Pandemic Influenza Preparedness Framework and for integrating risk communication in all outbreak response work. She lead the development of WHO’s first-ever evidence-based guideline on emergency risk communication and has published several articles on the practice of risk communication in the21st century. She also has experience on academia, ministry of health, international NGOs and community-based organizations.

For the international response to the Ebola Virus disease (EVD) outbreak in West Africa 2014-2015, Dr Gamhewage was assigned to coordinate all Ebola-related training for the international response under UNMEER. She leads risk communication and community engagement work at global level for WHO’s responses to Zika and Yellow Fever. She currently serves on the WHO Guideline Review Committee.

A medical doctor by training, Dr Gamhewage holds an Executive Master in International Negotiation and Policy-Making by the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies of Geneva and has qualifications in public health as well as conflict management, negotiation, advocacy, social marketing, adult learning and medical teaching, evidence-based decision-making, human rights programming  and global health studies.