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No magic bullet, but no excuses: we know what works for women’s and girls’ health

Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research including UNDP-UNFPA-UNICEF-WHO-World Bank Special Programme of Research, Development and Research Training in Human Reproduction

Commentary
25 September 2015

Ever since my days of delivering babies, I have done everything I can to advocate for the health and human rights of women and girls. While I have seen a great deal of progress, societies across the world are still failing women and girls and their health.

Marleen Temmerman, Director, Department of Reproductive Health and Research.

The poorest, most disadvantaged women and girls bear the burden of persistent inequalities, which exist between and within countries. Discrimination, unequal power relations, and structural failures mean that women and girls often miss out on life-saving health services and experience serious violations of their human rights.

Health challenges women and girls

The health challenges faced by women and girls are specific, and they are many.

Too many women continue to die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – approximately 800 women every day. One in four girls experience sexual violence before their 18th birthday.

Women’s cancers, particularly breast and cervical cancer, are also on the rise. In less developed regions – where many girls and women do not have access to cancer screening or prevention services – cervical cancer is the second most common cancer. In 2012, approximately 270 000 women died from cervical cancer; more than 85% of these deaths occurring in low- and middle-income countries. Suicide is the leading cause of death in adolescent girls and in women aged 20-59 years globally.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – the highest risk factor of which is exposure to indoor air pollution caused by the burning of solid fuels for heating and cooking – is a leading cause of death amongst older women.

"We know what works. We know what interventions we can implement to make a difference."

Marleen Temmerman

These are just some of the many negative outcomes and health risks which girls and women are vulnerable to throughout their lives. We are not doing enough to safeguard their wellbeing. These health burdens are heavy, and we must stop them from weighing down women and girls.

The good news is that we can. We know what works. We know what interventions we can implement to make a difference.

Launch of Global Strategy to end preventable deaths

This week sees the historic launch of the new Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, a 15-year road map for ending preventable deaths of women, children and adolescents.

Alongside the inauguration of the strategy, a special supplement to The BMJ – "Towards a new Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health" – has also been published.

The 15 papers, co-authored by myself and WHO colleagues, alongside many health experts from around the globe, highlight the critical actions and investments that will have the greatest impact on the health of women, children and adolescents.

The priority interventions include providing health information and contraceptive services, strengthening maternal healthcare, tackling noncommunicable diseases, and preventing and responding to violence against women and girls.

Key health systems and structural interventions are also needed to reduce inequities in access to health systems and services. These include improving quality of care, strengthening accountability, promoting the adoption of innovations that improve performance, creating an enabling legal and policy environment, and reducing gender inequalities.

While there is no magic bullet, there are also no excuses. Over the past 2 decades, we have seen a significant decline in maternal and child mortality, but much remains to be done.

We must stand behind the new Global Goals for sustainable development and the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health and implement what works. Each one of us can be part of transformational change.