Paying it Forward: Why Women are the Best Investment

Community health worker Beatrice Khalayi (R) speaks with Margaret Ruguru about family planning during a home visit in Nairobi's Korogocho slum, Kenya.

Women inspire and shape the world, one conversation at a time. Certainly there are women who lead governments, political coalitions, universities, and corporations, and we celebrate them and their accomplishments on International Women’s Day. But we also celebrate the millions and millions of women in families and communities around the world—women who are committed to making the world a better place for the girls who will soon take their place.

Last month, the World Bank released its annual World Development Report. Each year, the report looks at specific aspects of global development—everything from climate change to sustainable development, agriculture, and economics—that if carefully prioritized, can make the world a better place for everyone. I was heartened to learn that this report is titled Gender Equality and Development. The world has come to appreciate the value of women in building healthy, sustainable communities. Leaders at the highest echelons of civil society, business, and government have begun to understand that prioritizing women’s health and economic needs yields real and measurable dividends—unleashing a virtuous cycle of economic and social development.

In my travels, I see the difference that women and girls make to their communities every day and I marvel at how they do it. I am struck by the unwavering determination of mothers, talking with family members, with friends, with anyone whom they believe can help in their fight for the health and survival of their children and families and, then, inevitably, their entire community.

In the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges, these women are brave and inspiring. One of these women is the amazing Sarah Omega, who turned her tragic story into a force for good.

Sarah was 19 when she was raped, became pregnant, and lost her unborn baby boy during a long, arduous labor. And while it is difficult to believe that anything could be worse than this loss, afterward, Sarah suffered an obstetric fistula, causing her to leak urine uncontrollably. Sarah was shunned by her family and community, a common experience for girls and women with untreated fistulas. She lived with her condition for 12 years, not knowing that it could be treated. Sarah was ostracized but not alone; according to the World Health Organization, more than 2 million young women live with untreated obstetric fistula in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

In seeking treatment for depression, Sarah stumbled upon a facility that could repair her fistula and put her on a path to good health. Sarah got the treatment she needed and now works as an advocate for pregnant women. She said recently, “I know what it feels like … and I decided I’ll not just sit back and let other women suffer in silence, just the way I did.” She works closely with fistula survivors and community and local leaders in Kenya, training and supervising them as they educate others about the importance of preventing fistula. One conversation at a time, Sarah helps women access treatment. She “pays it forward,” and every person she trains increases the likelihood that more women will experience a safer childbirth.

At Johnson & Johnson, women and girls are at the center of our philanthropic work because we believe that caring for the health of a mother is the most direct way to improve the life of an entire family. By supporting programs that provide women and girls with education and training to address health challenges—like preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, teaching health workers to perform neonatal resuscitation, or training midwives and skilled birth attendants to help make childbirth safer for women and their babies—a healthy future becomes a more accessible reality, rather than a faraway dream.

Last week when we celebrated International Women’s Day, it was a moment to reflect on how far the world has come in ensuring that women’s health and economic empowerment are a priority. In more than a century of rallying behind this important day, the world has evolved to be a more equitable place for women and girls. There is much more to be done, but thanks to the tireless work of many organizations, we get a little closer each day. And each day we are inspired by individual women who are changing the world, one conversation at a time.


Source: Gates Foundation – 12 March 2012