Girl’s and Women’s Health: An Investment with a Big Return

Who can forget the brave resilience of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani activist who is fighting for women’s rights and education? Or the makeup of the newly elected U.S. Senate, which now includes more women than at any point in U.S. history? Or the inspiring performance that earned Gabby Douglas a gold medal at the London Olympics?
Together, these 2012 milestones and others testify to the tremendous reserve of talent, ideas, and passion possessed by girls and women around the world – and to why all of us benefit when that reserve is unleashed.
However, as advocacy campaigns like the Girl Effect, 10×10 and others have demonstrated, poor health, disempowerment, and—as exemplified in Malala’a case—gender-based violence, prevents millions of girls around the world from achieving their full potential. As a result, classrooms, families, communities and economies are less productive. Now is the time to turn advocacy to action.
I am a board member and ambassador for PSI, a global health organization that has demonstrated private and corporate investments can be leveraged to dramatically improve the health of girls and women. The problem isn’t that there is a shortage of solutions to the world’s most vexing health concerns. The solutions exist. The challenge is finding ways to deliver them in the farthest regions of the developing world where the need is greatest—in communities that lie beyond the reach of public roads, where the nearest health center is two days away by foot, where there is such a disconnect that women may not even be aware of health services we in the western world take for granted, such as family planning.
On a trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a village outside Kinshasa, I spent a day with Therese, Victor and their six children. I was shocked to learn that, until recently, they had never heard of family planning, let alone the options available to them. Instead, they grew accustomed to the chronic toll that unintended pregnancies took on Therese’s fragile body.
As a young couple they dreamed of being able to provide their children with everything they needed to become healthy, responsible and productive members of society. But with six children, they struggle to offer them even their basic needs. In Therese’s eyes I could see that it was more than just the physical deprivation she and her family were suffering—she felt as though she had been stripped of her dignity and self-respect. I don’t know a single mother who wouldn’t feel the same way if she were forced to look her child in the eye and not know with certainty she could feed them, educate them, or provide them with every opportunity to succeed in life.
Reaching women like Theresa with information about health services that benefit her and her family doesn’t require rocket science. It does, however, require finding context specific and culturally appropriate solutions that make it possible to reach her.
The good news is that a social venture capitalist movement is gaining momentum, and is helping to diversify the donor landscape. It’s bringing together non-traditional partners to support the types of innovative solutions that are dramatically expanding access to healthcare across the developing world.
When it comes to the health of girls and women, our first priority is making sure every child survives the first 48 hours after birth—when the majority of infant deaths occur. During the first five years of life, every child needs access to proper nutrition, vaccinations and access to a wide range of health services.
We know that if a girl receives the reproductive health information she needs as an adolescent, and if she has access to modern family planning options, she will know how to protect herself from sexually transmitted diseases and is more likely to begin a family when she is ready. And we know that every mother should have access to the information she needs to keep herself and her baby healthy during pregnancy.
Donor governments generally lack the ability to invest in large-scale innovation projects with public funds because they can’t assume too much risk. In the past decade, private foundations like that of Bill & Melinda Gates, large corporations, non-profits and individual wealthy investors, have stepped in to fill the innovation gap with private funding. They’ve forged non-traditional partnerships that leverage their collective financial and intellectual resources to deliver health solutions.
Many of these partnerships have helped to mitigate risk by proving the solutions can be successfully introduced in remote regions of the developing world. As a result, large government donors have then leveraged the initial investment and replicated the solution at scale.
We need to identify more game-changing ideas that have the potential to accelerate and sustain progress for the health of girls and women across the developing world. We also need private and corporate investors that are willing to support innovation and push the boundaries that currently limit us. I firmly believe that through innovation and partnership we can transform insurmountable development challenges into solvable problems.