For Healthcare to be Universal, it has to Meet the Needs of Girls and Women

5 Summits. 1 week. 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Introduction by UN Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed

One of the benefits of the Sustainable Development Goals is that they work for everyone at any point in their lives, this includes Goal 3 — Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages.

When it comes to health equity Katja Iversen, the President and CEO of Women Deliver, is one of the most compelling voices in the world today. I could not think of a better person to share her thoughts on the upcoming High-Level Meeting on Universal Health Coverage. UHC can be an equalizer not only for gender equality but also poverty and other SDGs.

Jonathan Torgovnik / Women Deliver

The following is a guest post written by Katja Iversen, the President and CEO of Women Deliver.

5 Summits. 1 week. 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Despite significant progress, health inequities across and within countries persist. Too many people lack the healthcare they need, and for those that have access, the financial burden of care can be crippling. Universal Health Coverage (UHC) promises to upend this status quo, and would transform the lives of girls and women, driving progress on gender equality. But only if UHC puts a gender lens to healthcare systems.

At Women Deliver, we have long argued that it is not just an option to consider the specific needs of girls and women when designing and investing in healthcare. It’s a necessity. When girls and women are healthy, their families and communities fare better, and they themselves have more opportunity to get an education, join the workforce, and participate economically and politically. It’s a virtuous cycle.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has been building momentum all year toward a High-Level Meeting on UHC at the General Assembly this month, and is already working on the implementation with governments. When countries sign on to the Political Declaration, it will be an important boost to uneven progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

We applaud Director General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus’ strong commitment to UHC that gives everyone equal access affordable, effective, and gender-responsive health services.

To get to there, women must be part of the design, implementation, evaluation, and accountability of policies, programs, and services. Despite the fact that 70% of the world’s health care workers are women, and that the vast majority of the world’s “informal” caregivers within the family are girls and women, they are an unrecognized and under-utilized resource in creating health for all.

A child is vaccinated at a health centre in Bali, Indonesia. UN Photo/Mark Garten

Health systems also have to address workforce dynamics that affect those female caregivers, including safe work environments, fundamental rights, fair incomes, and integrating unpaid health workers into the formal labor sector.

Heath systems should better reflect the way girls and women seek and access services throughout their lives. For example, women typically live longer, increasing their chances of developing non-communicable diseases like hypertension or cancer.

And of course, for UHC to truly be “universal,” it needs to include sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The bedrock of gender equality, SRHR is more than pre-and ante-natal care. It includes contraception and infertility treatments, prevention and treatment of sexually transmitted infections, and cancers of the reproductive organs. It recognizes our right to determine when, with whom, and whether to share our bodies and have children.

There’s no getting around it — implementing UHC is going to cost money and it must be prioritized in national budgets. An additional $371 billion is needed globally each year to make significant progress, with 75% of that cost going toward health systems strengthening. The result would be 97 million lives saved and an increased life expectancy of 3–8 years.

Finally, there must be monitoring and evaluation, which means there must be a commitment to collecting and analyzing age and sex disaggregated data. We have to measure what we treasure and what is more important than human life?

If implemented, UHC has the potential to curb the devastating effects of HIV, reduce maternal death by 73% and newborn deaths by 80%, avert 3 million deaths from cervical cancer, and cure the hundreds of millions in the developing world who have one of the four major, curable STIs.

But we obviously can’t leave it to commitments on paper. The WHO and civil society organizations must be able to hold countries to their promises. And the private sector must step up and be part of this undertaking.

The Alliance for Gender Equality in UHC — more than 100 civil society organizations from 46 countries — is calling on the world’s governments to stand up for girls’ and women’s human rights, including their access healthcare — no matter their race, ethnicity, age, ability, migrant status, gender identity or expression, indigeneity, health condition, class, or caste.

Health is more than Sustainable Development Goal 3 — it’s cross-cutting. Better health leads to better outcomes on just about everything, including gender equality (and vice versa). And there’s a ripple effect, as the status of girls and women in society is a key determinant for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals and health for all.

It’s time for world leaders to be smart and brave and get moving. They must reaffirm their commitments to UHC at the UNGA and we all have to double down on the work needed to reform long under-valued and under-resourced healthcare for girls and women. Because healthier women lead to a more gender equal world and a gender equal world is healthier, wealthier, more productive, and more peaceful. Whether you’re a world leader or not, we all have power. How will you use yours to create a more gender equal world?

5 Summits. 1 week. 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

23 September Climate Action

23 September Universal Health Coverage

24–25 September Sustainable Development

26 September Financing for Development

27 September Small Island Developing States

Our World. Our Future.

A platform for discovery and sustainable development from the United Nations Deputy Secretary-General, Amina J. Mohammed.