Runners-up for the 2021 Letten Prize

(Listed in alphabetical order)

Tolullah Oni – Citation

Tolullah “Tolu” Oni (from Nigeria/ UK) is a public health physician and urban epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge. She leads the Global Diet and Activity Research group in Cambridge and the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE|Africa) group at the University of Cape Town where she is an Honorary Associate Professor. Her enthusiasm towards a better understanding and identification of factors that drive inequality is timely, in order to enable science to contribute to fairer, healthier, more sustainable cities. Her main motivation lies within the notion of focusing on what is possible, to stand a chance of transcending what is.

Oni has played a critical role in advancing scholarship in the nascent field of urban health research in Africa. She has published her research in high-impact journals and given keynote presentations at global meetings including the World Science Forum, World Health Summit, the UN, the WHO, and the Gates Grand Challenges annual meeting. She is an award-winning young researcher with a stellar track record. Through her projects, she is supervising and inspiring a new generation of boundary-spanning researchers across disciplines and sectors in Africa.

Oni is a Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences, co-chaired the Global Young Academy from 2017-2019, and is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Her interest in the practice of urban health led her to found UrbanBetter – an Africa-led, equity-centred and youth-privileged learning collaborative and advocacy platform – to connect and mobilize individuals, communities, and organizations for healthy sustainable urban environments.

Her research plan is to establish the UrbanBetter Academy, a research and training platform, that would work in tandem with the existing advocacy platform, to increase the demand for healthy places and increase the supply of health from place. This academy will mainstream urban health research into society and activate the agency of youth to shifts norms towards healthy urban development in Africa. The citizen science approach aims to both increase the involvement of youth in science while encouraging participation in urban governance as active citizens. This involves working with youth to generate actionable data about their cities while building the research capacity and agency needed to achieve this mission. In addition to building capacity of early career researchers, this platform will generate evidence on the changing urban environment, encourage youth participation and inform advocacy for change, and inform public and private decision-making on urban infrastructure, development, and planning for healthy, sustainable African cities.

Her project is interdisciplinary, with broad collaboration between communities and sectors, and the building of a citizen science platform with and for youth will enable a broader understanding of the current inequalities in health exposures in cities. This bottom-up strategy is combined with a top-down approach collaborating with governments and urban developers, and results in a project with a global outlook and Oni is clearly positioned to achieve the goals she has set out for the project.

Oni is committed to addressing complex population health challenges through research, and her previous research has paved the way for strategies that connects science, policy, and societal role players to break silos of sectors and disciplines, and of research and practice. Through her scientific potential and her emphasis on what is possible she is a highly qualified runner-up for the 2021 Letten Prize.

Tolu Oni, the 2021 Letten Prize runner up interviewed by Thiago Medaglia, a science and environmental journalist based in Brazil.

Get to know Tolullah Oni

The majority of factors that influence health in populations have nothing to do with healthcare, but are a function of the natural and built environments people live in: their access to clean air and water, healthy food, safe and affordable housing, transportation and green spaces.

Addressing these challenges requires a multi-disciplinary, cross-sectoral, collaborative and international approach to urban health.

To meet these challenges, Dr Tolu Oni is working to create a research platform that brings together researchers, practitioners, advocates and stakeholders in urban health to collaborate on urban infrastructure interventions that promote health and sustainability, particularly in Africa.

Oni is a public health physician specialist and urban epidemiologist at the University of Cambridge – where she is a Clinical Senior Research Associate and Joint Lead of the Global Health Research Group – and the University of Cape Town, where she is lead of the Research Initiative for Cities Health and Equity (RICHE|Africa) research group.

She began her medical career as a clinical epidemiologist in infectious diseases, training at University College London, the University of Cape Town and Imperial College London. However Oni soon became interested in how the urban environment influenced not just infectious disease but health more broadly.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, it sparked a global awakening about the impact that cities have on health. For Oni, who is commissioner of the Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy, it signalled that it was time to take her research focus to the next level.

For years, she had been collaborating with experts from across the sector – research organisations, private enterprise, NGOs and others – in Africa. In December 2019, she was involved with a three-day intersectoral workshop on healthy cities in South Africa that attracted representatives from eight major cities across the continent.

One of the key messages that came from that workshop was that participants wanted a better way to connect with each other, to network, share best practice, exchange information and learn together. Oni observed that so many of those working in the sector were working in isolation, unaware of what others were doing in other cities.

So Oni created UrbanBetter: an African-led science-based learning and collaboration platform. The first goal of UrbanBetter was to bring people together, both online and offline. “In my experience of this kind of complex work, the serendipitous conversations that you have when you talk to people are the things that spark ideas and spark change,” Oni says.

The second was to provide a platform to capture and share the science of urban health. With the rapid rise of non-communicable disease on the African continent, Oni says there is a risk that the urban health mistakes of the past will be repeated rather than being learned from. But there is an opportunity to do better: to design cities that support walking and active forms of transport, that minimise air pollution, and that provide equitable access to green space, for example.

“Nothing is inevitable about how we build cities, but it just has to be deliberate,” Oni says. She argues that the post-COVID world needs a new ‘Marshall Plan’ that puts urban health at the center of the recovery process. “It would engage, connect and activate young people across the continent, to increase the demand for healthy sustainable places, and increase the agency to effect that change,” she says.

As well as being equity-focused, UrbanBetter also puts young people at the forefront; not just as a niche group but central to discussions. Oni, who is also Co-Chair of the Global Young Academy, says that for a continent where the median age is 19, ‘youth’ is actually the average person. “If we are going to catalyse and accelerate the demand for healthy facilities, we actually have to connect young people,” Oni says. For example, the platform features weekly profiles of young disruptors, who are thinking differently about how to make the urban environmental healthier and more sustainable. Oni sees UrbanBetter as almost a youth citizen science network.

“It connects young people, both to other young people who care about the environment in that way and want to contribute to it, but also helps them to connect to their environments and to see their environment through the lens of health and sustainability.”

While UrbanBetter is a continent-wide initiative, it will be anchored in local institutions such as universities and research organisations and will partner with local civil and non-academic partners.

Oni says being recognised as a runner-up for the Letten Prize is recognition of the value, importance and timeliness of her work, and has further motivated her to achieve her vision of what UrbanBetter can be and do to improve urban health.

Ramona Vijeyarasa – citation

Ramona Vijeyarasa (from Australia) is a Senior Lecturer in the field of international women’s rights law and gender equality at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS). She is also the 2020-2021 Women’s Leadership Institute Australia Research Fellow and she is affiliated with Australian and New Zealand Society of International Law (ANZSIL). Ramona has a strongly-held belief in the need to promote the advancement of women’s rights with evidence-based research if change is to be accelerated. Through her various experiences with communities, international organizations and not at least the women inspiring her, she is destined to make a significant and lasting contribution to improving women’s lives.

Vijeyarasa’s research has made a significant impact through publications in high impact journals and books, as well as through public and scientific dissemination. Her research pursues new and innovative strategies to help make headway on gender inequality through better use of the law and legal systems. Her well-reviewed book on the comparative study of human trafficking in Vietnam, Ghana and Ukraine dismantled the existing misconceptions about the demographic of victims allowing for better policy interventions. She has been the senior program manager for women’s rights at Action Aid International for six years, which is a leading international NGO operating in 46 countries on the issue of violence against women in public/urban spaces and she exponentially increased ActionAid’s visibility in UN-related advocacy fora.

She developed the Gender Legislative Index as a world first, a global index grounded in women’s rights with the capacity to evaluate individual provisions of individual laws that uses a machine learning algorithm to score them. Through this out-of-the-box solution she has collaborated with software engineers, data scientists and data visualization experts. Her research is thus multidisciplinary and methodologically innovative. The Gender Legislative Index offers a methodology and dataset that can profoundly improve women’s lives in low, middle and high-income countries and as such bridge the global north-south divide.

Her research ambition for the Letten Prize funds is to fulfill the potential within the Gender Legislative Index. Previously, the Index has been piloted on over 130 laws from the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia and has demonstrated the possibility of advancing gender-responsive law reform on a global scale. The Letten Prize would be the catalyzer for this research, bringing visibility and scale to this Index, allowing it to fulfil its potential to make a difference for women across the globe.

Vijeyarasa has already demonstrated a profound impact on policy reform through her research and methodologically innovative Gender Legislative Index, and her ethos is similar to that of Letten – she sees and pursues connections where there previously were none and she sees them in areas others do not see as connected. Further, while critical voices of young scholars may easily get lost, the Letten Prize would add strength to these voices both for and with women. Lastly, Ramona Vijeyarasa sees the law as a solution rather than a problem and knows how to apply it. Yet, we need more research-based evidence to support the political will to implement legal systems for gender equality. Through her previous endeavors, highly relevant achievements and clear plans with an impact for the future of gender equity, Ramona Vijeyarasa is a highly qualified runner-up for the Letten Prize.

Ramona Vijeyarasa, the 2021 Letten Prize runner-up is interviewed by Pakinam Amer, a science writer based in Cairo.

Get to know Ramona Vijeyarasa

Four years ago, Dr Ramona Vijeyarasa began studying the legacies of female presidents around the world, to see what impact their presidencies had on the gender responsiveness of legislation enacted during their time in office.

However she soon discovered a major problem with her research: there existed no index for how gender-responsive legislation was, and therefore no benchmark against which to judge the impact of having a woman run the highest office in the land.

So Vijeyarasa – the Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow and senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law at the University of Technology Sydney – set out to develop one.

Vijeyarasa has an extensive background in women’s rights. Early in her career, she interned at the Coalition against Trafficking in Women Asia-Pacific in the Philippines, and the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Rights in New York. Later, she worked with the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York and was a senior program manager with ActionAid International.

She has also worked with the committee for the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). That convention was Vijeyarasa’s starting point for developing a benchmark for evaluating legislation on gender impact.

She wanted an international benchmark that all nations could evaluate their legislation against. It also had to be an index that would apply not just to gender-specific legislation – for example, addressing gender-based violence or reproductive rights – but all legislation, from tax to trade.

Vijeyarasa began by analysing and categorising all the recommendations issued by the CEDAW committee since the 1980s. From this, she developed seven questions that she believes every legislator should consider when drafting any law of any kind. These questions examine how the law affects women’s access to services and information, whether it promotes equality in accessing those, whether it enables them to make decisions freely, how responsive it is when things go wrong, and whether it enables the collection of data to understand women’s experience of that law.

“They are seven questions that nicely tell women’s stories,” Vijeyarasa says. Not all the questions in the Gender Legislative Index will be applicable to every legislation, but the benchmark is designed to accommodate that range. It’s designed to identify who is marginalised by, discriminated against or excluded from the law, and how a law might be rewritten to addressing that marginalisation, exclusion or discrimination.

“It’s about understanding that every area of law is important to women,” she says. “It’s understanding that if you don’t get every bit of legislation right, you’re not going to use the law to its optimum to advance gender equality.”

For example, workplace safety laws in Australia define safety as both physical and psychological safety, yet focus almost entirely on the physical hazards of the workplace. There is no acknowledgment that of psychological hazards, such as sexual harassment or threats. This means that those risks – which are often faced by women – are not captured or addressed by the legislation.

Similarly, while the majority of victims of domestic violence are women, the legislation on domestic violence in some parts of the world is written in gender-neutral terms. “Sometimes the call has to be for women-specific legislation that acknowledges that this is an area of law where women are the majority of the victims,” Vijeyarasa says.

That might also mean tailoring legislation to the gender mix of particular industries and workplaces; for example, the fashion industry – in which most workers are female – compared to agriculture, in which most are male. Gender-neutral legislation for these industries risks being ‘gender-blind’ rather than ‘gender-just’.
“It’s about acknowledging who is most at risk, and what is this law trying to achieve,” Vijeyarasa says. “Is it going to advance the equality that it’s supposed to advance or address the risks facing the most excluded, or is it not really conscious of who are the most vulnerable because it hasn’t looked at gender?”

As well as using the Gender Legislative Index to examine the law-making legacies of female presidents, Vijeyarasa is interested in applying it to countries that perform highly on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap index, to see whether the gender-responsiveness of their legislation is a contributor to their success in addressing gender equality.

Vijeyarasa has already applied the Gender Legislative Index to evaluate 134 laws across seven areas of legislation in four countries, but is keen to expand this to 15 countries, as well as comparing countries in the global north and global south.

Being acknowledged as a runner-up for the Letten Prize both validates and brings visibility to her work, Vijeyarasa says. “I’m very grateful for the support this research has had even from its very early days, right through to today.”