Access to healthcare: Why we need to prioritize women and girls

We need to prioritize women and girls' access to healthcare

We need to prioritize women and girls' access to healthcare Image: Unsplash/Annie Spratt

Amira Ghouaibi
Head, Global Alliance for Women's Health, World Economic Forum
Dhwani Nagpal
Community Specialist, Women’s Health, World Economic Forum
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Women's Health

This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • COVID-19 exposed the shortcomings of global healthcare and public infrastructure.
  • Women's and girls’ health has been severely affected during the pandemic.
  • Increased investment in women's and girls’ health is of utmost urgency.

Every year on 28 May, as the world marks the International Day of Action for Women’s Health, the health of women and girls comes into sharp focus. It is essential, however, to prioritize women's and girls’ health and healthcare every day. Global and local communities need to take the necessary steps to improve their financial and social security and bridge the gaps in the provision of essential health services.

Poor access to healthcare

Over the past two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the shortcomings of global health and public infrastructure. Vulnerable populations have disproportionately suffered the impacts of the pandemic. Women's and girls’ health has been severely affected. Their access to essential health services, in many cases, has been cut off, and recovery efforts have been actively deprioritised.

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During the height of the pandemic, funds were directed away from women's and girls’ health towards other life-saving services. There was also a general lack of awareness and prioritisation. This has led to major funding gaps in women’s healthcare. In addition, an underfunding of women's health research means that specific challenges or diseases that affect women and girls remain unaddressed.

In a world where sexual and reproductive ill-health accounts for one-third of the global burden of disease among women of reproductive age, increased investment in women's and girls’ health is of utmost urgency. For women to have autonomy over their bodies and decision-making processes, donors and policy-makers must ensure that they have access to quality healthcare services.

Providing women and girls with better access to healthcare is important to build resilience for future crisis.
Providing women and girls with better access to healthcare is important to build resilience for future crisis.

Access to sexual and reproductive health

Last year, UNFPA reported that 12 million women in poorer countries lost access to contraception during the pandemic. This led to 1.4 million unplanned pregnancies. The social and economic impact of these pregnancies is projected to worsen due to the climate crisis. In Ukraine, where the conflict with Russia continues, the situation is just as dire.

“We are foreseeing that 265,000 women are pregnant in Ukraine and in the next three months 80,000 will give birth.

Monica Ferro, Director of Geneva Office, UNFPA

Ferro warns that there there is likely to be an increase in maternal mortality and morbidity if these women can't access birthing facilities and skilled birth attendants.

According to a report released recently by the UN, nearly 50% of global pregnancies are unintended, 60% of unintended pregnancies end in abortion, and 45% of all abortions are unsafe, leading to 5-13% of maternal deaths. Moreover, unintended pregnancies can push women out of the labour market, which can push them into poverty. This then results in poorer nutrition and a decline in schooling for girls.

The lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services has severe impacts on women from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. This is why governments and the private sector must increase their investment in health systems and ensure that women and girls have equal access to healthcare.

According to a recent study by the WHO, an increase in investment into sexual and reproductive health data collection at the country level is essential to understand the causes and impacts of unintended pregnancies on women's and girls’ rights, and to ensure improved access to healthcare and provision of services.

Statistics for women's access to healthcare
Statistics for women's access to healthcare

Investing in equal opportunities for girls

School closures caused by COVID-19 are projected to keep 11 million girls out of school, according to the UN. These closures have rolled back the gains in the advancement of girls’ rights. Families around the world are forcing girls into child marriages and jeopardising their health and development.

Any investment in women's and girls' health should include an investment in equal education opportunities, which would allow girls to make informed choices regarding their health and well-being. Education plays a vital role in ensuring that women and girls realize equal health rights, economic independence and labour market participation.

School closures have also led to increasing concerns with respect to the mental health and psychological well-being of adolescent girls, due to an increase in domestic violence, loss of access to sanitary materials, poor engagement with distance learning and declining confidence and self-esteem. Investing in equal education opportunities for girls also means investing in their mental health, and overall well-being.

A foundation for healthy and growing economies

Many countries are returning to normalcy and building a post-COVID world. Economic recovery is at the centre of these forward-looking priorities. Many economic responses will fail to provide equal opportunities for women and girls, further widening the gender-parity gap. Yet, it has been demonstrated that prioritizing women’s and girls’ health is an important pathway to building healthier economies, societies, and communities.

According to Family Planning 2030, every $1 spent on increasing family planning services yields $120 in health and economic benefits. A study from the World Health Organisation's Africa region showed that maternal deaths lead to losses in GDP. On the other hand, healthy women improve health outcomes for their families and communities.

They become economically productive and contribute to the wealth of their countries. And they also play a crucial role in building intergenerational progress, thereby creating more chances and opportunities for their children. In a world where we will need 135.6 years to close the gender-parity gap, improving and protecting women’s and girls’ health should be part of any recovery plans.

A 'Women's Health' map, which brings together all the key issues affected the health of women and girls. (access to healthcare)
A 'Women's Health' map, which brings together all the key issues affected the health of women and girls. Image: Strategic Intelligence

The power of choice

The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was the first global policy framework aimed at advancing women's empowerment and women’s rights, including the right to control their sexuality and sexual and reproductive health. The World Health Organisation recently released an article highlighting the uneven progress on this front, with particular concerns around violence against women and girls, and poor sexual and reproductive health conditions.

In some countries, women and girls are unable to make their own decisions around sexual protection, contraception, or safe abortion, which has a major impact on their health and well-being and will often jeopardize their future. For example, disrupting access to safe abortions will have a significant impact on women’s lives, “marriage patterns, educational attainment, labour force participation, and earnings”.

There is still a long way to go for all women to access quality healthcare and equal opportunities. If we want to see genuine advancement in health and gender equity, inclusion, and human rights, all women must feel empowered to make informed decisions about their own bodies.

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