By: Dr. Helene D. Gayle, President and CEO of CARE USA and Dr. Julia Newton-Howes, President and CEO of CARE Australia
Next month, representatives from leading NGOs, advocates, government officials and donors will gather at the Women Deliver 2013 Conference in Kuala Lumpur to ensure that the health and rights of girls and women remain at the forefront of global humanitarian and development agendas.
Since the first conference in 2007, there has been an unprecedented expansion of global commitments to the health and welfare of women and girls. Real progress has been made indicated by a 47 percent decline in maternal mortality worldwide between 1990 and 2010.
That’s the good news. Unfortunately, progress remains unbalanced. Global trends mark sharp health inequities within countries. In some parts of sub-Saharan Africa, there has been minimal to no progress, or the situation has worsened. So, what will it take to deliver on our commitments to women and girls?
CARE ’s experience shows that the sexual and reproductive health and rights of girls and women cannot be achieved through the provision of health services alone. Real change requires addressing underlying and systemic factors, including the pervasive gender inequality that undermines the health and well-being of women and girls throughout their lives. We must also empower women to engage with health care systems and claim their equal rights to high-quality, responsive health care.
Transforming restrictive gender roles and addressing deeply rooted power inequities can be a slow and gradual process. Nevertheless, our work on the ground indicates that critical shifts in gender norms and power dynamics can be achieved in a relatively short time, leading to significant, measurable improvements in the lives of women and their families.
In Uttar Pradesh, India, a CARE-supported maternal health program women’s empowerment activities into traditional prenatal and maternal care services, enabling important shifts in gender norms. Female participants were significantly more likely to have the freedom to go out alone and to spend their own money, as well as to believe in their right to refuse unwanted sex. Couples were more likely to discuss sexuality and make household decisions together. The proportion of women using family planning rose from 7% to 35%, and the number of women delivering their babies with a trained provider more than doubled. These increases were much greater than those among women who only received standard health services.
In one of the poorest regions of Peru, CARE partnered with a network of indigenous women to identify barriers life-saving emergency obstetric care. Both women and healthcare workers learned about women’s health rights. Facilities improved their referral systems and adopted more respectful practices. The number of women seeking life-saving maternal care increased, and maternal deaths fell by a remarkable 49% in just 4 years.
As we come together at Women Deliver, let us remember that women’s empowerment, gender equality and human rights must be at the core of any meaningful development framework for women’s health. We must not only tackle technical and logistical barriers that hinder women’s health, but also challenge restrictive gender norms and empower all women to claim their right to responsive, high-quality healthcare.
CARE is a sponsor of the Women Deliver 2013 conference. To learn more about the upcoming event in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on 28-30 May, visit: http://www.wd2013.org!