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Women’s Leadership is a Powerful Catalyst for Better Health

Resty Nakaketoo, a patient at the Kalisizo District Hospital, Rakai.

Does having women in positions of political leadership change how governments make policy on health and welfare? The latest research suggests there is a powerful correlation.

According to an illuminating report by UNESCO, countries with a mandated minimum representation of women invest, on average, 3.4 percent more on health and welfare. That holds true across more than 100 countries studied—and translates into significantly more dollars more spent on health where women’s leadership is prioritized.

Without addressing the health needs of women and children, it is impossible to achieve health for everyone.

Last month in Delhi, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on political leadership for health at the Partners Forum of the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health—and the crucial role of women leaders was front and center. We heard perspectives from women currently serving in positions of political leadership, as well as from those who lead global efforts to advance women’s representation in leadership.

Katja Iversen, gender equality champion and president of Women Deliver, noted passionately that women are powerful change-makers for health—because they know firsthand that health is a bedrock of social and economic progress:

I have been attending this Forum for a number years, and this is the first time it overlapped with Universal Health Coverage Day on December 12th—a coincidence that could hardly have been more fitting. Without addressing the health needs of women and children, it is impossible to achieve health for everyone.

The Government of India, which co-hosted the forum, led by example. Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to increase India’s health spending to 2.5 percent of the gross domestic product, or an additional $100 billion, by 2025. These new investments could help improve women’s and children’s health, which remain significant challenges in India.

One of our panelists was Indian Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare Anupriya Patel, who talked of the deep responsibility she feels to the women she represents:

Women who speak out about the health of women and children often face a double bind. On one hand, women leaders have the advantage of being able to speak from a visceral understanding of the issues involved, as many have experienced gender discrimination, dealt with the challenges of managing their reproductive lives, and juggled motherhood and work.

On the other hand, women leaders who advocate for “women’s concerns” risk being dismissed and devalued. One of our panelists, Inter-Parliamentary Union President Gabriela Cuevas, highlighted the diverse stresses that women leaders experience—a reality that exists across countries, sectors, and roles:

Her words struck me as hard but honest. Celebrating the strength and resolve of our women leaders is extremely important. But this mindfulness must translate into substantive action. We all have a role to encourage investments in women and children, because ultimately we all will benefit.

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