By Nalini Saligram and Diana Vaca McGhie
You have to hand it to women. They know how to bring excitement, passion, and determination to something. And that they did this week in New York for the 60th session of the UN’s Commission on the Status of Women (CSW: March 14–24, 2016).
The event drew thousands of women, energized by the central role of women and girls in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and discussions big and small — on gender equality, on women’s empowerment (and the link to sustainable development), and of course on our favorite topic: health.
As leadership representatives of the Taskforce on Women & Non-Communicable Diseases (NCDs), we were glad to see several points emerging from these meetings that resonated with us:
1. We women want to leave the world a better place for our children and for future generations. For this we must actively collaborate, and break down the silos. The NCD community can be helped by strategically integrating with the traditional Women’s traditional movement whose focus has so far been on women’s reproductive health and rights. We are learning more about the strong link between maternal mortality and NCDs; that NCDs are a major reason why pregnant women die and that these diseases contribute to subsequent cycles of chronic disease across generations.
We women want to leave the world a better place for our children and for future generations.
In fact, we know that NCDs are the major reason why all women die, with impact highest in developing countries. Shouldn’t the #1 reason for women’s mortality, NCDs, become our #1 priority? In the NCD community we speak the health language, but have a lot to learn about including women’s rights arguments into our messaging, and about making in-your-face demands with confidence. Forging strong alliances with women’s groups will get us there.
2. A woman’s life is more than her reproductive years. We were pleased to hear leaders from many women’s groups articulate that thought this week. We at the Taskforce believe we must nurture a woman’s life from birth, through her 5th birthday, her childhood and adolescence, then the reproductive years, and beyond that right into her old age. We were struck by the AARP’s presentations this week on the interconnectedness of aging and gender. And we read with interest the recent article by Knaul et al which goaded us all to re-think what is “maternal” in maternal health. We advocate for a lifecourse approach to tackling NCDs.
3. We must get more engaged in evidence-based advocacy. Let’s ask countries for gender-disaggregated data so policy makers can see more clearly the impact of NCDs on women. One of our Taskforce members has already started this effort, by collecting data from 10,000 women around the world. In the study, only 30 percent of the women reported having had a cervical cancer or breast cancer screening. Surely we can do better than that.
4. Here is something else we heard this week that got us to stop and think: If 2/3 of the students in a class are failing, we don’t say it is entirely the children’s fault. It would be very obvious there is something wrong with the teacher or the school or even the education system. So an alarming increase in NCDs, killing 2 out of 3 people in the world today means that it is not only the individual’s fault, but reflects a failing of the entire system, of the very way we live. So we need to strive for all-encompassing, system-wide, multi-sectoral approach — including sweeping policy change — to win in the fight against NCDs.
We need to strive for all-encompassing, system-wide, multi-sectoral approach — including sweeping policy change — to win in the fight against NCDs.
5. We’ve also been reflecting on where women and NCDs fit into the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. We believe they fit into several including #1 (poverty), #3 (good health), #5 (gender equality), #8 (economic growth), #10 (reduced inequality), #11 (sustainable cities and communities) and #17 (partnerships). Helping women prevent NCDs can indeed help the world meet these goals. We are working with our colleagues from the Taskforce to discuss NCD prevention in the context of the goals.
6. We firmly believe that it is women who can steer their families towards healthy living. They are usually the ones who make the family decisions about the food they eat and the physical activities in which their children engage. It is therefore critical and strategic to engage women and women’s group leaders to advance the fight against NCDs.
We commend the Global Coordinating Mechanism of the World Health Organization for getting a group of forward-thinking women–and a few good men!–together at a side event at the United Nations in New York March 23, 2016, to think through strategies to engage women. We will share our ideas including elements of our compelling I’m NCD Positive campaign, which builds on each one of us being affected by NCDs in different ways — as patients, caregivers, mothers, wives, daughters, and world citizens.
It’s time to empower women to transform the world we live in.