Addressing Crisis by Investing in Women

By Thoraya Ahmed Obaid

None of the crises we face today -- whether it is the food crisis, the water crisis, the financial crisis or the crisis of climate change -- can be managed unless greater attention is paid to population issues.

World Population Day is the right time to put the issue of population back on the radar screen. And it is not a moment too soon. By 2050 our current global population of 6.8 billion could grow to the United Nation's median projection of 9 billion, or even soar to 11 billion people.

But what is not widely appreciated is that the projection of 9 billion global population is premised on a substantial reduction in fertility in the least developed countries and this requires a dramatic expansion in access to voluntary family planning.

Recently we heard President Barack Obama, in his address from Cairo, say that denying a woman her education is denying her equality.

I would add another area that is vital for broadening women's horizons, one to which governments agree, it is improving access to health. The right to sexual and reproductive health is essential for advancing women's empowerment and equality between women and men.

Some 200 million women today want to plan and space their births but lack access to safe and effective contraception. According to the latest figures, just 1 in 4 married women in the least developed countries are using modern contraception and a further one-quarter of those women had an unmet need for family planning. So there is a high unmet need for family planning, and the need to expand these services is urgent.

It is important to note that investments in women and reproductive health are not only decisive for overcoming poverty, they are also cost-effective. For example, an investment in contraceptive services can be recouped four times over -- and sometimes dramatically more over the long-term -- by reducing the need for public spending on health, education, housing, sanitation and other social services.

That's why the International Conference on Population and Development proposed a plan 15 years ago in Cairo to ensure universal access to reproductive health by 2015. This target now appears in the Millennium Development Goals, under MDG5 to improve maternal health, and this is an area where we need to make far greater progress.

The sad and shocking truth is that maternal mortality represents the largest health inequity in the world. And of all the Millennium Development Goals, MDG 5 to improve maternal health is lagging the furthest behind. With the financial crisis and the reduction in budgets for health, solving these problems will be even harder.

Clearly we need to do more to improve women's health. The health benefits of these investments are well known, well documented and substantial. It is estimated that ensuring access to voluntary family planning could reduce maternal deaths by 25 to 40 percent, and child deaths by as much as 20 percent. The World Bank estimates that ensuring skilled care in delivery and particularly access to emergency obstetric care would reduce maternal deaths by about 74 percent.

Access to reproductive health helps women and girls avoid unwanted or early pregnancy, unsafe abortions and pregnancy-related disabilities. Women stay healthier, are more productive, and have more opportunities for education, training and employment, which in turn, benefits entire families, communities and nations.

In March, the World Bank reported that the current economic crisis could lead to increases in infant and maternal deaths, female school dropout rates, and violence against girls and women. Regardless of this economic crisis, investment in women and girls must continue if not increase.

In war or peace, natural or man-made disaster, prosperous economy or financial crisis, women continue to get pregnant. And when they do, what happens to them is quite limited: give birth safely, abort safely or unsafely, miscarry, or simply die while giving birth. These facts of life cannot be stopped or postponed. But we cannot excuse ourselves when women die while giving birth simply because there is a financial crisis.
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Obaid is executive director of the United Nations Population Fund
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Copyright (C) 2009 by the American Forum. 7/09

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