As people around the world observe International Women’s Day on March 8th, public health officials are calling on policy makers and global donors to empower rural women by supporting health and wellness programs. Officials say prime targets for these investments should be the treatment of tropical infections and improving women's access to reproductive health services.
Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization (WHO), appealing to philanthropists and country leaders at a recent pledging conference in London to commit more money to improving health services for rural women.
The WHO says the economic empowerment of rural women - the theme of this year's Women's Day observance - can only happen when those women are given better access to essential drugs and basic medical treatment. In London, major donors rose to the challenge:
Microsoft chairman and philanthropist Bill Gates has helped lead a campaign to combat neglected tropical diseases, which affect more than a billion people worldwide.
Dr. Julie Jacobson of the Gates Foundation says the movement against tropical diseases is also a movement to help rural women.
“When we talk about trachoma, blindness and the way that the women have suffered from these diseases and the effects it has had on their families - [for example] lymphatic filariasis, schistosomiasis, which not only affects the urinary tract but also the genital tract and is a co factor - risk factor for HIV," said Jacobson. "And this is a thing that has never been appreciated. And so by treating this with a tablet - which is donated - you can reduce the risk factor for HIV by three-to four-old in these women. I think it’s an incredible time.”
That's a sentiment shared by Maureen Greenwood-Basken, executive director for reproductive health at the United Nations Foundation.
She says there is a growing recognition around the world that women and girls can be important catalysts of social change.
And she believes that rural women can more readily fulfill their roles in building a better society if their reproductive health is improved.
“If they are given access to voluntary contraception and family sizes then we see much better maternal health outcomes, greater infant survival, those families are better able to clothe and feed the children that they do have - the children are more likely to go to school," she said. "Mothers are able to engage in economic livelihood activities - build healthier family and stronger communities.”
Experts say continued investments in the health and education of women and girls - and in programs that support their economic improvement - are investments that benefit everyone.