The Shriver Report – Investing in Women’s Health & Rights Is Not Rocket Science
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Investing in Women’s Health & Rights Is Not Rocket Science

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Investing in maternal health and rights is a cause I spent the last decade of my professional life lobbying for on Capitol Hill, and analyzed for far too many years how US foreign policy creates barriers between women and the healthcare they so desperately need. Even now, I always follow and attend major symposiums around reproductive health and rights because I firmly believe that allowing women access to family planning services is the key to solving many of our challenges in developing the world’s economies.

Even today, the majority of women and couples, especially in the developing world, are unable to control their fertility. In fact, experts estimate that there are currently 215 million women around the world who wish to either delay or prevent pregnancy, but lack access to contraceptives.

And it is not just in ‘poor, developing’ countries that women are dying trying to control their reproduction, or delivering babies safely. Pregnancy related deaths are not casualties of the “developing world.” It happens in “developed” countries as well. In fact, America has one of the worst maternal mortality rates amongst industrialized nations.

The U.S. ranks behind over 40 other countries when it comes to maternal death rates, with 11 deaths per 100,000 pregnancies. Approximately 13 million women of reproductive age, roughly 1 in five, are uninsured, and Cesarean sections are notoriously high in the US, almost twice as high as recommended by the World Health Organization.  Most people have no idea about these facts.

What I find fascinating about this struggle of access in the US and globally is the focus it brings to the rights of the individual, especially women. What was groundbreaking at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo was the spotlight it put on women’s rights. This was when population policies stopped being about controlling population and slowing population and started being about empowering women.

The idea was that if women had access to education and higher salaried jobs, they would choose to have smaller families, thus lowering fertility rates. In her post, PAI’s Suzanne Ehlers identifies that we have repeatedly been shown that “if you give women the tools to have control over their lives, the numbers will follow.”

This appears to be happening as we speak in America. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced last month that US birth rates are the lowest they have been since 1909, and that roughly 22% of 18-to-34-year-olds admitted they were waiting for the economy to improve before they had children.

But this fertility dip also reflects recent insurance requirements to cover contraception for women that went into effect in last summer. The Guttmacher Institute (GI) states that millions of American women are already benefiting from making contraceptive counseling, services, and supplies more affordable, which in effect plays a huge role in preventing unintended pregnancies. Susan Cohen, Guttmacher’s Vice President for Public Policy explains this further:

By preventing unintended pregnancies, contraception provides significant health, social, and economic benefits for women…The two-thirds of U.S. women at risk of unintended pregnancy who use contraception consistently and correctly throughout the course of any given year account for only 5 percent of all unintended pregnancies. The 19 percent of women at risk who use contraception inconsistently account for 43 percent of unintended pregnancies, while the 16 percent of women at risk who use no contraceptive method at all for a month or more during the year account for 52 percent.”

Although experts expect that US fertility rates will eventually stabilize and increase by 2013, the main message is that women’s health and rights are central to a country’s economy and overall progress.

“…Women’s health and rights are central to a country’s economy and overall progress.”

Earlier this summer, I spoke with Christy Turlington-Burns, Founder of Every Mother Counts, who is also a tireless and passionate advocate for safe motherhood. I asked the 1990’s iconic supermodel, accomplished author, CEO, and mother about how despite all its progress, the US has one of the highest maternal mortality ratios amongst industrialized nations:

In the US, we lose 2 mothers per day and half of those are preventable. Americans spend more per capita on healthcare than any other country in the world, and we don’t necessary receive better care for the high price we pay. Our system is broken and when a healthcare system is broken, sadly, its women and children who suffer most…The US ranks 50th amongst developed countries in safe motherhood and that is not acceptable. As empowered citizens, we need to demand more for families.

Unless women in America and around the world are empowered to control their reproduction, to have access to the tools to control their bodies and in effect their lives, the domino effects of not investing in women’s health will be felt throughout. We know what to do, and we know how to do it. We have known before Cairo and after, that at the core of the solution to everyone’s economic and social stability is investing in women- in our rights and in our health. The US must do what it can to help women maintain consistent control over their reproductive rights.

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Anushay Hossain is a Reporter for The Shriver Report.
Anushay Hossain is a Bangladeshi blogger & journalist based in Washington, DC. She launched Anushay’s Point in 2009, and her work is regularly featured in Forbes Woman, Huffington Post, The International Herald Tribune, & Ms. Magazine Blog.
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