What We Mean When We Talk About Women & Children’s Health

The Gates Foundation on Monday announced that it planned to give $300 million every year over the next five years, a total of $1.5 billion, to programs that are devoted to improving the health of women and children worldwide. This now becomes one of the foundation’s largest initiatives.

“Women and children have finally moved up on the global agenda and I’m here to tell you that’s where they’re going to stay,” said Melinda Gates, speaking on the same day at a star-studded conference in Washington D.C. called Women Deliver. “Policymakers have treated women and children, quite frankly, as if they matter less than men.”

My friend Kristi Heim at the Seattle Times wrote a good story that tells you all about the grant announcement so I won’t repeat it. I had noted earlier that the philanthropy was shifting in this direction – which they claim is not a shift but merely an expansion of an existing priority.

Putting aside the question about whether the Gates Foundation can, in fact, guarantee what will be high on the global agenda (is there a global agenda?), it’s perhaps worth considering if women and children’s health issues really have been neglected as a matter of policy and agenda-setting. And if so, how?

Most global health initiatives that battle diseases like AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria benefit both genders and all ages since the bugs don’t discriminate.

I can’t think of any global initiatives devoted to men’s health but we have a number of organizations like CARE, Planned Parenthood and the Global Fund for Women focused on women’s health issues worldwide. We have even more organizations devoted solely or mostly to children’s health such as Save the Children, World Vision or the United Nation’s Children Fund (aka UNICEF). The Gates Foundation’s biggest project, GAVI, gets vaccines out to children worldwide.

And women, even women in poor countries, tend to live longer than men. So what are we talking about when we say women’s health is a neglected area?

We’re mostly talking about childbirth.

“When people talk about women’s health, they are often talking about maternal health,” said Emmanuela Gakidou, professor of global health at the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. Women who survive childbirth may or may not live longer than men generally, Gakidou said, but the number of young mothers and children in poor countries who die from complications associated with childbirth is hugely disproportionate when compared to developed countries.

For example, she said, Italy sees an average of four mothers die in childbirth for every 100,000 live births while in places like Afghanistan or Malawi it is more like one maternal death out of every 100 births.

“These deaths are almost entirely preventable,” Gakidou said, adding that the new momentum on this front is because more people recognize “that women should not be dying while they are trying to have a child.”

Amy Hagopian, also a UW professor of global health, said she welcomed the Gates Foundation’s increased interest and investments in maternal health. But the most fundamental need of women in poor countries, she said, is a functioning health system with nurses, midwives and doctors.

“Women are dying because of the lack of these health services,” said Hagopian, adding that the Gates Foundation has so far shown little interest in funding efforts aimed at improving health services. “We already have lots of NGOs working on women and children’s health. Adding more people running around Africa claiming they have come to improve women’s health won’t solve the fundamental problem.”

Hagopian was among a number of people who recently advocated for and won passage of a resolution at the World Health Assembly in Geneva aimed at improving health worker retention in poor countries.


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