Although we’ve made significant steps forward over the last 100 years, this year’s International Women’s Day is a reminder that women around the world still have significant barriers to overcome. Fortunately, there are some concrete steps the global community could take to advance women’s health and women’s rights. Here are four policies we need to start prioritizing:
1. Reliable access to affordable family planning resources.
Women report that they rely on birth control to help them achieve their economic goals, like finishing their education, keeping a job, and maintaining a family size they can support. But at least 200 million women in developing nations aren’t able to use the contraceptive methods of their choice because they lack the necessary information, resources, or support from their families. The international community agrees that reproductive choice is a human right, but that right is not being realized for women around the world — partly because family planning resources are less of an international development priority than they used to be. President Obama’s repeal of the “global gag rule” — a Reagan-era policy that restricted USAID funding for any women’s health organization that included information about abortion in their comprehensive sexual health resources — was a good start, but without continuing to invest in family planning programs in developing nations, women around the world won’t be able to determine their own reproductive futures.
2. Safe and legal access to abortion.
The Guttmacher Institute estimates that complications from unsafe abortion procedures contribute to 47,000 preventable deaths around the world each year. It’s particularly imperative to ensure global access to safe abortion since, unlike access to contraception, the legality of abortion has nothing to do with actual abortion rates and women seek out this type of reproductive care regardless of the law. Low-income women are particularly likely to be forced to resort to unsafe abortions because they can’t leverage their economic privilege to access the health care they need. And even in some countries in the developing world with more progressive abortion laws, unsafe abortions are still the leading cause of maternal death and injury — partly because women are unaware of the reproductive resources available to them, and partly because a pervasive stigma surrounding abortion prevents women from discussing their options with family and friends.
3. Better maternity care.
Giving birth remains a risky medical procedure around the world. An estimated 800 women die in childbirth every single day, often from preventable medical complications like bleeding, infections, and obstructed labor — or simply from the lack of basic resources, like electricity. In Nigeria, women are dying in the dark because power outages prevent doctors from being able to provide adequate maternity care. Preventing maternal deaths helps keep children thriving, since infants whose mothers die are more likely to die before reaching their second birthday. But maternal care isn’t just about about ensuring women’s access to safe medical procedures — it’s also about promoting policies that help support mothers throughout pregnancy, birth, and caring for a newborn. The U.S., one of just a handful of countries that do not provide paid maternity leave, lags behind in this category.
4. More resources to prevent gender-based violence.
Sexual violence against women remains a tool of war and oppression around the world. Globally, as many as one in three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or abused in some other way. Aside from robbing women of their bodily autonomy, this type of violence also directly impacts women’s reproductive health — leading to unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, preventable gynecological issues, and increased STD transmission. In fact, earlier this week, UN delegates pointed out that the link between gender-based violence and the HIV pandemic needs to be made explicit. In sub-Saharan Africa, women constitute 60 percent of the people infected with HIV — and since gender inequality and violence put women at a higher risk for the virus, international efforts to combat the HIV/AIDS epidemic should also be engaging with issues of domestic violence and sexual assault. “Once you empower [women], issues of HIV and gender-based violence will be a thing of the past,” Zimbabwe’s deputy prime minister, Thokozani Khupe, pointed out.