Rachel Pulfer is the executive director of Journalists for Human Rights.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced this week that Canada would invest $14-billion over 10 years – $1.4-billion a year – to improve global health for women and girls. Couched in that announcement: a commitment of $700-million for sexual and reproductive-health rights.
The funding puts Canada in a leadership position on women’s and girls’ health outcomes globally. It is grounded in bipartisan values, building on the Harper Conservatives’ focus on maternal health. It’s good, solid, evidence-based policy. And yet it’s being attacked as one more example of the Liberals’ myopic focus on gender over all else, election-year posturing, or too little, too late.
So why does gender get so much attention in the face of seemingly “larger” issues, such as global conflict or climate change?
On June 4, British medical journal The Lancet outlined how restrictive gender norms are literally killing us. Norms around gender – a set of social conventions and definitions that guide or restrict behaviour, distinct from our sex – pervade society. It affects who gets to go to a clinic, and how deadly cooking smoke can be (more than three million people die each year in part because of household air pollution from inefficient cooking practices, which poses an outsize threat to women). Men also suffer from restrictive gender norms: Extreme definitions of masculinity mean men are more likely to be drafted into militias or otherwise exposed to violence. And while traditional societies frown on women and girls asking for contraception, those who can’t access it only have more children; in Niger, for instance, the average woman has seven children, and the annual growth rate is 3.8 per cent, the highest in the world. By 2050, Niger’s population of more than 21 million could nearly triple, and as security demographer John May argued in The Conversation in March, such a demographic profile creates massive pressure on weak infrastructure. Add increased competition for resources and an unresponsive government, and a baby boom can be the tinder that sparks extremist political violence.
The key indicator of whether a society will develop or fail is whether its population growth can be controlled, and the way to head off such outcomes is simple: Empower women to control how many children they have. “This is critical to development,” says Robert Greenhill, the executive chair of Global Canada and the former president of Canada’s international development agency. “No country has developed successfully without family planning.”
Women who use contraception tend to have fewer children, who are better educated. Better educated children earn more. This virtuous cycle supports significant economic growth, at rates of between 6 per cent and 8 per cent a year in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania.
In short, investing in women’s health and emphasizing sexual and reproductive health can help catalyze greater economic self-sufficiency for a developing country within a couple of generations.
Putting a gender lens on international assistance is not, in itself, a panacea. And short-sighted projects that disrupt gender norms without effectively engaging and integrating men and boys can cause backlash; in 2010, a study found that exclusively providing microcredit for women in Bangladesh had proved a double-edged sword. In some households, it strengthened women’s status. In others, men simply took the money. In extreme cases, it increased the risk of domestic violence.
Working toward gender equality isn’t just about supporting maternal health clinics and hospitals. Better integrating women and girls into public life can build support for initiatives that benefit everyone – from quality 24/7 health care to improved education. It’s partly why Journalists for Human Rights, along with the government of Canada and leading Canadian media organizations, emphasize gender explicitly in our latest program to train journalists in four Global South regions, with a particular focus on the stories and voices of women and girls. Such stories direct attention to previously marginalized, so-called “women’s” issues: health, education, child welfare and the environment. The result, as JHR has seen over 12 years of programming, is a focus on coverage of issues over conflict.
No team, as Women Deliver CEO Katja Iversen says, will win if half of it is on the bench. By prioritizing the health and welfare of the half being left out, Canada will bring up to 18 million women and girls back into the game over the next 10 years. More women in the game means better economic and health outcomes for entire communities. That’s why investing $14-billion in health care for them is the right thing to do.