Inspiring a Women’s Health Revolution

March 8 , 2018, Over the last year, as the global momentum striving for women’s equality and gender parity gained momentum, we saw a sea change around the world. Women have demanded their right to work safely, be paid fairly, and live without fear of harassment and harm. This movement has been a long time coming, but it is only the beginning.

As women (and men) continue to advocate for change from #MeToo to #TimesUp and beyond, we must make sure that our vision includes uplifting women from all walks of life and backgrounds from all over the world.

The fundamental building block of a young girl’s life, whether in Botswana or Baltimore, is her health. Before a young girl in Pakistan can run a company or a country, she needs an equal chance at living a healthy life. Most girls never get that opportunity. That is why investing in health for girls around the world from birth, through childhood and into adolescence, is both the right thing to do and comes with a huge economic dividend.

Fighting for health equality for women isn’t an abstract slogan; the health of women is the keystone of women’s equality. It also provides the most immediate opportunity to ‘press for progress’—this year’s theme of International Women’s Day—and ensure that every single woman’s right to quality health services is realized.

The birth of the Millennium Development Goals did help accelerate progress in tackling maternal and child health. However, there is still a lot more work to do. Every day, 830 mothers die in childbirth. Many of them, literally bleed out on the roadside, unable to get to a hospital to get the health services they need.  

Unfortunately, women are dying from largely preventable or treatable complications. Adolescent girls are at a heightened risk of complications at birth, but sadly an estimated 16 million girls give birth every year. Many countries, have failed to realize the commitments enshrined in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child, which prohibits marriage under age 18. Woefully, at least 214 million women are still unable to access the family planning services that would allow them to control when they have children.

Ending early child marriage and ensuring girls are educated has multiple benefits. Educated girls grow up with the skills and experience needed to make their own choices, get better jobs, have children later and better space them out. They can lift themselves, and indeed their families and communities out of poverty. 

Too often women’s health focuses only on their reproductive capacity. However, the biggest killers of men and women are now noncommunicable diseases (NCDs). This includes diseases like cancer, diabetes, lung and heart disease. In fact, two thirds of all deaths and disabilities in women relate to chronic diseases NCDs, violence, and other injuries. And yet, the myth that these killer diseases are mainly the domain of men persists despite the evidence.

Overweight and obesity is the gateway disorder driving much of NCD crisis. The near double rates for women in their twenties and thirties is concerning since it is not just maternal undernutrition but also over-nutrition which undermines human capital development, the strongest predictor of the success of nations in this digital age. In fact, so significant is its interplay that the borrowing costs of countries are likely to be affected by their human capital rankings by 2025.

The consequences of maternal malnutrition are far-reaching for human capital development. Women who are themselves stunted in childhood tend to have stunted offspring, creating an intergenerational cycle of poverty and reduced human capital that is difficult to break.  

On the other hand, through intergenerational biological connections, malnutrition in the womb can increase the risk of chronic conditions like obesity, and NCDs during adulthood. Therefore, we see many developing countries presenting a double malnutrition burden with overweight and obesity coexisting with food insecurity, under-nutrition and stunting.  

In fact, gender differences in obesity and under-nutrition rates can be understood as a reflection of underlying gender inequality and socio-economic factors. Where female empowerment and workforce participation isn’t the norm, women are more likely to be a lot more obese than their male counterparts—and a vicious cycle is perpetuated. Gender inequality in society can swing the pendulum of nutritional status towards both excess female obesity and undernutrition among women and children.

Greater gender equality can reset the balance with respect to nutritional health and wellbeing, not just of women, but for human capital development. More broadly, gender inequality is not only a barrier for prosperity and economic growth but also has a strong correlation with poor social outcomes.

Addressing gender inequality and women’s health is therefore at the heart of the human capital development effort. Supporting and improving girls’ schooling and education, enabling women to access credit and land, promoting women’s political rights and participation in economic life, all are potentially vital underlying interventions to address the human capital development challenge.

Over the last year, the global women’s movement has successfully taken on entrenched patriarchal and hierarchical systems and structures to address these challenges. On this International Women’s Day, now is the time to drive a women’s health revolution that saves lives and improves social and economic outcomes.   

Helen Clark is the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and the former Administrator of UNDP. Dr. Sania Nishtar is co-chair of a High-Level Global Commission on Noncommunicable Diseases, founder of Heartfile and former Federal Minister of Pakistan.


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