Among the many provocative ideas that emerged from last week’s Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen perhaps the most memorable was the concept that today’s most significant development is not taking the form of superhighways, skyscrapers and other massive structures, but rather the health and well-being of girls and women. And yet, it was stressed, much more development is needed in this regard.
The slogan for the gathering in Denmark – the biggest global conference on women’s health and rights in a decade – was “When the world invests in girls and women, everybody wins!”
In a video address opening the meeting, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon declared, “It is time to put women and girls at the heart of development.”
That’s part and parcel of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals approved by world leaders last year, aimed at ending extreme poverty and shrinking inequality.
In the modern age, women’s rights have been mooted, debated and battled over for more than a century and shared centre stage during the democratic revolution of the 1960s and early ’70s, but only now is the movement’s rhetoric – so often unintentionally exclusive to women – being replaced with a message that embraces all of society.
As Princess Mary of Denmark pointed out at the conference, the “women’s agenda” is in fact a united and unifying agenda of benefit to humanity as a whole.
And this, added World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim, is why governments should not balk at investing money in the wellbeing of girls and women.
They are forever seeking World Bank loans to build infrastructure, he noted, and yet women “are their most precious infrastructure”.
There are good arguments backing up this claim. As an example, it is frequently overlooked that countries with more women in the workforce enjoy or are closer to achieving sustainable development. A study by McKinsey Global concluded that having as many women as men in the workforce would add US$28 (RM116) trillion to the world’s gross domestic product every year.
Men nevertheless remain dominant in the workforce, the result of patriarchal tradition that erects barriers to full economic participation for millions of women around the planet. In underdeveloped regions the disparity routinely leads to tragic consequences, such as preventable deaths.
The mortality rate among women giving birth in Africa is one in six, compared to one in 9,000 in Europe. One African woman dies every two minutes due to preventable complications in pregnancy and childbirth.Every year around the world 15 millions girls become child brides and as such are denied education and job opportunities. Thus they too cannot contribute to the economy.
The solution, said Jim and other global leaders speaking in Copenhagen, lies in investing in women and girls, a strategy that is crucial to meeting those Sustainable Development Goals that will benefit the entire human race. “It starts with a healthy girl,” he said, making the message as plain as could be.
Healthy girls are better equipped for education and work. Healthy young women have healthy pregnancies and are better able to be good mothers.
The simplicity of the notion doesn’t disguise the scale of the challenge beyond birth. Access to healthcare, including the full range of sexual- and reproductive-health services, must be financed and delivered. In 2014 around the world 22,000 women died while having unsafe abortions, and 80 per cent of those pregnancies resulted from lack of contraception. This too was preventable.
If women, and particularly teenage girls, can avoid unwanted pregnancy, the positive impact on their lives and thus on society is profound. Gone is a major obstacle to proper education, better economic opportunities and healthier lives. The same applies to child marriage.
Policymakers have to stop overlooking such proven arguments. Investment in the welfare of girls and women must continue to grow, especially in the areas of education and adolescent health. The return on the investment will extend beyond economic prosperity, to the happiness of society in general. – The Nation/Asia News Network