On International Women's Day, Progress and Challenges in Women's Health

For today's celebration of International Women's Day, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon remarks:

One hundred years ago, when the world first commemorated International Women's Day, gender equality and women's empowerment were largely radical ideas. On this centenary, we celebrate the significant progress that has been achieved through determined advocacy, practical action and enlightened policy making. Yet, in too many countries and societies, women remain second-class citizens.

He goes on to describe violence against women (including sexual aggression in conflict), women and children's health, and women's unequal representation in decisionmaking as areas where we urgently need progress.

Death from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes, or maternal mortality, is one of the pressing problems, and reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths is one of the Millennium Development Goals. This WHO fact sheet summarizes the problem:

  • Every day, approximately 1000 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.
  • 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
  • Maternal mortality is higher in rural areas and among poorer and less educated communities.
  • Adolescents face a higher risk of complications and death as a result of pregnancy than older women.
  • Skilled care before, during and after childbirth can save the lives of women and newborn babies.

Worldwide maternal mortality did drop by one-third between 1990 and 2008, but there's still a long way to go. Many of these deaths could be prevented with appropriate cure during pregnancy, childbirth, and the postpartum period, but many women in the developing world don't have access to such care. Then there's the need for preventing unwanted and too-early pregnancies, which is not only an issue of scarce healthcare resources but of women having control over their own reproductive health. For as much progress as we've made in the century since the first International Women's Day, there's far from universal agreement that women should have control over when they'll bear children.

There are a lot of men in the world who don't want to see women controlling their own lives, and perhaps they don't realize the extent to which women's access to educational and economic opportunities correlate to better health and nutrition outcomes for the whole population. Michele Bachelet, former president of Chile and current executive director of UN Women, sums it up in a video address:

Evidence shows that where women have access to good education, good jobs, land, and other assets, national growth and stability are enhanced, and we see lower maternal mortality, improved child nutrition, greater food security, and less risk of HIV and AIDS.

Problems of inequality can seem intractable, and I confess to feeling especially demoralized when I see things like House Republicans trying to slash funding for federally supported family-planning services in the US and abroad. Looking back 100 years, though, I can see that we've made an impressive amount of progress. I hope we can do even better over the next century.

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