Laura Hoemeke is Director of Strategic Communications at IntraHealth International, based in Chapel Hill, N.C. This post follows a discussion Monday at Aspen Institute on women’s health.
The Aspen Institute’s Ministerial Leadership Initiative panel discussion on Women and Health taught, or maybe reminded me, of three important lessons, among countless others.
First, as Dr. Susan Brems noted, policies and programs that successfully address the health of women do not treat them as “the vulnerable ones” or silent “beneficiaries,” but listen to women, respect women, and work with them as resilient agents of social change.
Second, as Dr. Tonya Nyagiro pointed out, ensuring that programs support infants, children and adolescents is just as important as supporting services for adult women that meet their health needs.
Third, as Dr. Julio Frenk and Michele Moloney-Kitts and other panelists reminded us, in developing policies and implementing programs, we need to remember that health workers and health systems are not only providing treatment and offering care, but also are offering primary health care, including health education and prevention (like family planning services!), and therefore need to supported in these roles and in light of their larger social and cultural networks.
It was invigorating to be a part of this celebration of International Women’s Day, and of the release of WHO’s new report, Women and Health: Today’s Evidence, Tomorrow’s Agenda. Dr. Frenk pointed out the importance of talking about “women and health” rather than “women’s health,” noting that women play many roles in influencing health, serving not only as caretakers, but also as members of the workforce and, especially the health workforce.
Moloney-Kitts emphasized the importance of making sure that “women’s voices influence our policies,” reminding us that violence against women still too often silences some of those voices. (With USAID support, IntraHealth has been able to work on some stimulating initiatives addressing the prevention and response to gender-based violence: www.intrahealth.org/page/gender-equality-1)
Moloney-Kitts also reminded us that too many women are still dying from HIV and AIDS—and that it’s not the time to pat ourselves on the back and cross our arms. All of the panelists agreed that family planning efforts need to continue, too, including innovations and support for new contraceptive technologies—ones that involve men as well as women.
The new WHO report, which includes an impressive compendium of information, should be read and consulted widely, and truly inform and influence public policy. As Dr. Brems noted, we need to roll out the tried and tested approaches—and ensure that innovations are truly innovative. (For example, is providing setups that allow women to deliver while they are squatting or not in a bed or wearing some of their clothes, preferences impacting health seeking behavior that were documented years ago, really an innovation today? When we know that something works, we don’t need to re-innovate, but to figure out how make it happen.)
The US Government’s new Global Health Initiative should ensure that “women’s voices influence our policies” and wholeheartedly make use all of the available evidence to meet its goal of “adopting a women and girl-centered approach” to the benefit of women, men and families and communities. The GHI has pledged to “support long-term systemic changes to remove barriers and increase access to quality services” for women, ensuring meaningful participation of women and girls in decision-making and involving men and boys in addressing gender equity. The right people, policies and programs can make this happen.