Heed past lessons to deliver for girls and women – and drive progress for all

by Jill Sheffield
Monday, 28 September 2015 17:47 GMT

A Somali mother looks at her infant in the maternity ward of the International Rescue Committee hospital in the Hagadera settlement at Kenya's Dadaab Refugee Camp, situated northeast of the capital Nairobi near the Somali border, August 31, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

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Far more work must go into getting more leaders to understand the evidence for investing in girls and women

There was a lot on the line for the world’s girls and women last week as global leaders meet at UN headquarters for a once-in-a-generation summit on international development.

Last time around, 15 years ago, I was there – and it didn’t turn out so well for girls and women.

We’re more optimistic today, with the UN Secretary-General and many global leaders personally pledging to make the Sustainable Development Goals work for girls and women.

But this is no time to rest easy. It will take a real fight to keep girls’ and women’s health, rights and wellbeing at the top of political and financial agendas. To win, we must focus on the gains and learn from past mistakes.

The situation is much better today than it was at the turn of the millennium. At the time, one of the most dangerous things you could do was become a mother. In fact, many women didn’t make it that far: every minute a woman died in pregnancy or childbirth.

Since 1990, maternal death rates have fallen by virtually 50 percent. However, this remarkable decline didn’t happen without a battle.

You might think progress was sparked by the 2000 Millennium Development Declaration and Goals. In reality, improving maternal health (MDG5) was an ambitious pledge that the world initially ignored.

Other goals received the political attention and funding they deserved: new HIV infections dropped and more children received life-saving vaccines. But maternal deaths didn’t budge.

We needed to do something different to drive change, and fast. The lessons we learned then are just as relevant now as world leaders make new and bigger promises.

The first lesson is that if we are serious about health and development, we cannot set goals that only value boys, men and their mothers. In the last development agenda, policymakers’ action – or inaction – made it clear that girls’ and women’s lives mainly mattered because they delivered babies.

Yes girls and women deliver – and much more than babies. And not all women will or want to be mothers.

The Sustainable Development Goals do a better job of recognizing girls and women beyond motherhood. Notably, the goals aim to meet girls’ and women’s full sexual and reproductive health needs.

Senselessly, some of these issues remain controversial. Many countries (including mine) are reluctant about doing what it takes to guarantee girls’ and women’s health and rights. The best way to make the case is with data and evidence – a second lesson.

The economic case for investing in girls and women is clear and compelling. Remember back in 2000 when we virtually ignored the half a million women who were dying of pregnancy complications? The price tag on our inaction was US$15 billion in global productivity losses – annually.

When a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth, her newborn is almost certain to die before his or her first birthday. But when a mother survives, her entire family thrives.

When girls and women can fulfill their sexual and reproductive health and rights, they are more likely to finish their education, delay marriage, postpone pregnancy and contribute to their economies.

We at Women Deliver have sometimes been criticized for framing girls’ and women’s wellbeing in economic terms: you’re monetizing women, some say. But I say: we have to move hearts and minds.

Far more work must go into getting more leaders to understand the evidence for investing in girls and women. The change we seek depends on greater action, partnership and collaboration from leaders of all kinds, from young people to CEOs. That’s the third lesson.

We founded Women Deliver in 2007 to reinvigorate global attention to the health and wellbeing of girls and women. At our triennial conferences, participants helped pinpoint bottlenecks, identify smart solutions and fuel a growing advocacy movement. Yet, this was only one piece of a much larger puzzle.

Together, advocates helped ensure that the lip service policymakers paid to girls and women was backed up by concrete commitments. Melinda Gates pledged US$1.5 billion to maternal and child health in 2010. That same year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon established the cross-cutting Every Woman, Every Child partnership to mobilize global action and launched the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health, which is being renewed this week.

Which brings me to my final – and most important – lesson: there is not time to wait. We cannot afford to rest on our laurels or cool our heels. This time, we must invest in girls and women sooner and smarter. We must invest more. We must invest NOW. 

As a leading, global advocate for girls’ and women’s health, rights, and wellbeing, Women Deliver brings together diverse voices and interests to drive progress in maternal, sexual, and reproductive health and rights. We build capacity, share solutions, and forge partnerships, together creating coalitions, communication, and action that spark political commitment and investment in girls and women.