If human rights appeals fail to persuade, then perhaps governments can be convinced to put money into gender equality and women’s reproductive health because it pays big bottom-line national dividends, according to the World Bank.
“Gender equality and economic health are inextricably linked,” said Jeni Klugman, director of gender and development at the World Bank. “We need to do a better job of linking reproductive health with economic prosperity.”
Klugman spoke on a panel of experts on Tuesday, the opening day of Women Deliver, one of the world’s largest conferences on women’s health and rights, which has drawn over 4,000 world leaders, health experts, human rights advocates and others to the Malaysian capital for the three-day event.
“The basic message is that investments in reproductive health are a major missed opportunity for development,” according to Investing in Women’s Reproductive Health: Closing the Deadly Gap Between What We Know and What We Do, a World Bank report developed for the conference which Klugman presented on her panel.
The report shows that women supply about 40 percent of the global work force and more than 60 percent of agricultural workers in sub-Saharan Africa. It concludes that improved reproductive health increases productivity and is of national economic value that should be considered by policymakers.
Klugman described the case of Sri Lanka as an example of how investing in reproductive health can yield great economic returns, even in a poor country. By deciding to invest in women’s health starting in the 1940s, the Indian Ocean island nation saw maternal mortality drop from over 2,000 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1930 to just 35 currently.
The improvement had significant positive side effects, Klugman said. As fewer mothers died, and female life expectancy lengthened, families began investing more in girls, especially in educating them.
“For every year of increased life expectancy, female literacy improved by 0.7 percentage points or 0.1 years of schooling relative to schooling relative to males,” the report said.
When mothers are healthy during pregnancy, their children tend to be born healthier and more likely to succeed in school and in the labour force, suggesting investment in maternal health also has long-term benefits, according to the report.
Timing of pregnancies, and thus family planning, also matters, Klugman said. Evidence indicates that increasing spacing between siblings can improve test scores in older children, possibly because families can devote more time and resources to individual children.
Lakshmi Puri, acting head of UN Women, had a clear message for governments which have made, but not fulfilled, commitments to fund improved healthcare for women: “Implement your commitments.”
“This forum is about what we believe is a priority, not only for women but for societies, communities and the world and that is providing the highest standards of sexual and reproductive health for women and girls,” she said.
“When we launch a rocket, we have to be sure all systems are go. Similarly, we have to make sure for women and girls that all systems are go,” she added, including political, economic and judicial systems.
“Before considering the economic benefits of keeping women and girls healthy, we must consider health as a human rights,” said Musimbi Kanyoro, president and chief executive of the Global Fund for Women. But fulfilling women’s right to health care must be a priority, she said, adding that “justice delayed is justice denied.”
“Women have delivered for us all, now the world must deliver for women,” Puri said.