A Guest Post by the International Women’s Health Coalition
President Obama’s Global Health Initiative is promising for many reasons—the most revolutionary of them being that this Initiative is, by definition, a women- and girl-centered package of services delivered through strong health systems that are accessible to all. The International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC) and our colleagues and partners around the world have long stood by the belief that better health outcomes for women and girls translate into healthier communities—and having the support of the United States in ensuring that women and girls are the center of global health policy is a step forward. Let’s make it happen.
Focusing the Global Health Initiative on women and girls will have a multitude of benefits, including improved reproductive and maternal health outcomes. Through an integrated, easily-accessed package of sexual and reproductive health services (comprehensive sexuality education; reliable access to contraception; safe abortion services; quality maternity care; prevention, testing, and treatment for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) including HIV; and human rights protections) maternal mortality can decrease drastically and a just and healthy life can become a reality for every woman and girl. Although the GHI’s package of services for women and girls does not yet include all of the above elements, it includes many of them and is an important step in the right direction.
This integrated package of services is also an entry point to make significant progress in other areas, including the fight against HIV/AIDS, malaria, tuberculosis, and preventable and easily treatable illnesses such as diarrhea. We know that HIV/AIDS devastates the lives of people of all backgrounds, identities, and ages—but the numbers show that to make serious progress against the epidemic, we must start with rights-based programming focused on women and girls, who are often at increased risk of infection. In 1985, just 35 percent of adults living with HIV/AIDS were women–today, they are 48 percent of this group. The figures are even starker when it comes to young women who comprise 60 percent of 15-24 year-olds living with HIV/AIDS and are 1.6 times more likely to be living with HIV/AIDS than their male peers. Accessible and affordable prevention, care, treatment, and support services including comprehensive sexuality education, contraception, screenings for STIs including HIV, and providing HIV-positive IHIHIV women the information and services needed to prevent an unintended pregnancy or have a safe pregnancy and delivery would have a dramatic impact on the global pandemic.
When a woman is healthy and able to make informed choices about if, when, and how often she has children, it’s more likely that her children will be born at a healthy weight, and that she will have the ability to provide proper food and care for her family. Furthermore, if able to access comprehensive sexuality education, she is more likely to instill the principles of sexual health and gender equality in her children. These are just a few of the many examples of how commitments to women and girls are also commitments to healthy and prosperous families, communities, and nations.
We are excited about the Global Health Initiative’s women- and girl-focused approach because we know that U.S. leadership has the potential to set off a ripple effect across the world that will drastically improve women and girls’ reproductive and maternal health; the health and nutrition of newborns, infants, and children; and slow the spread of infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. We know this because our partners in Asia, Africa, and Latin America transform communities in this way every day. Take for instance Girls Power Initiative (GPI), which was born from two mothers who were frustrated with the abuse and neglect of young girls and women in conservative Nigeria. As a result, they created a program to change sexual and reproductive health outcomes and provide women and girls with the information they need to make healthy and informed decisions about their own lives. From what started in the 1990s as a series of empowerment meetings in their living rooms, their organization now reaches a huge audience through their TV and radio programs; and has directly empowered over 300,000 girls with information about their bodies and rights. In addition, the leaders of this organization have convinced the Nigerian government to adopt life skills education in public schools, and are now working on implementing the curriculum in the Nigeria’s 36 states. Their work is transforming not just Nigerian girls’ lives—but all of Nigeria.
As the United States undergoes a much needed overhaul of the way it thinks of and practices development, the health and wellbeing of women and girls is and should continue to be at the center of President Obama’s and Congress’s vision of a healthier, prosperous, and more secure world. Implementing the principles of the GHI, including a women- and girl-centered approach, throughout all U.S. foreign assistance policies and programs will translate into better development outcomes in other areas—the environment and poverty alleviation just to name two. For decades, we have urged policy makers and funders to focus development efforts on women and girls, and President Obama and Secretary Clinton are answering that call.
We applaud the Administration’s recognition of the critical role that women and girls play in the success of U.S. foreign policy efforts and we urge Congress to work with the Administration to make this vision a reality for women and girls worldwide.