Global Reproductive Health 
The Untapped Resource: Making Female Empowerment A Development Priority

Nicola Kelly discusses how debate at a WHO simulation conference can stimulate interest in the role of social development in global reproductive health.

Maria Eitel - India Economic Summit 2009. Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr.

Maria Eitel – India Economic Summit 2009. Photo by World Economic Forum via Flickr.

The issue of family planning is one that transcends borders. Globally, women are united as they balance the practicalities of family and working life and potentially combine a desire for motherhood with a struggle for independence and ownership of their bodies. The impacts of reproductive health are also felt globally: the economically active support an ever increasing number of dependents as countries face the contrasting challenges of population explosion and an aging population.

On October 26th, nearly 300 students studying healthcare-related degrees met at the Royal Society of Medicine at a simulated WHO (World Health Organisation) conference, representing the countries of the UN. On the first evening delegates heard from Maria Eitel, president of the Nike Foundation, about the importance of involving big business when tackling social development. Three years ago the foundation launched a new project called The Girl Effect in partnership with the NoVo Foundation, the United Nations Foundation and the Coalition for Adolescent Girls. The aim of the project was to engage and inspire influential people to address the women and girls constrained by poverty and the burdens of early marriage, pregnancy, HIV and discrimination. Liberating and motivating these girls, Eitel believes, could unleash an ‘untapped resource’, a cohort of women with the capacity to change their – and our – world.

How does The Girl Effect work?
The project has isolated 10 key obstacles to women in developing countries. One of these obstacles is a lack of education: 70% of the world’s uneducated population is female. Given that an educated girl will invest 90% of her future income in her family – compared to 35% for a boy – it seems that by educating women we are not only helping the women themselves, but entire communities. Another obstacle is early pregnancy, something that in developed countries is considered as a social rather than a health issue. To put this in context, according to documentation produced by The Girl Effect, pregnancy is globally the leading cause of death for 15-18 year old girls. These girls may have had little choice in the matter, or may be unable to access the methods of contraception that could save their lives.

Futile Debate?
At the model WHO conference this October aspiring global health advocates heard about the importance of valuing the girl and tackling inequality to change the world. Despite two days of tense debate and deliberation, resolutions passed will not shape policy and the students will return to their comfortable university lives. So, what has been achieved? Crucially, 200 aspiring doctors and policy makers have spent three days deciding what they would do to change the world. They have come to conclusions on how the unmet need for family planning and reproductive health services can be tackled based on the views of countries that they have researched, represented and defended, often without prior knowledge. If these individuals retain the passion and optimism cultured at the conference maybe, with the benefit of education and experience, their goals can be realised.

Simple works best.
In 2010 the network site LinkedIn published a list of its most-used buzzwords. “Innovative” came in second to “extensive experience”. Evidently high value is placed on coming up with novel approaches to a problem. In the case of reproductive health, however, “extensive experience” should also come first and we should focus resources upon established methods with known benefits. With this in mind the global community must strive to make basic healthcare universally available, accessible and affordable. The Girl Effect reminds us that sometimes we do not need to be “innovative” in our approach to social development: we just need to make the most of what we already have by investing in the untapped resource, providing women with the basic tools of healthcare, education and empowerment. 

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