Providing Medical Care for Women and Girls Can Change the World | Opinion

We have witnessed incredible displays of unity and progress so far this year. We banded together to put a stop to a global pandemic, created rockets to transport everyday people into space and leveraged AI and VR to revolutionize everything from how we shop to how we treat disease. And despite all these advancements, we have not been able to keep up when it comes to health care for women and girls, who are often left behind even as, societally, we move forward.

Maternal mortality rates continue to climb, with the most recent figures ranking the U.S. as last among similarly wealthy countries, and 55th compared to other countries according to the World Health Organization. Women's reproductive health care is growing increasingly difficult to access in high-income countries and is almost non-existent in low- and middle-income countries. Even the most basic needs, like eyecare, are often restricted or limited; in fact, 55 percent of all people with vision loss are women and girls, meaning 112 million more women than men cannot see clearly. The trickle-down effect this has on mental health is also concerning, with diagnoses of anxiety and depression for women at rates nearly double that of their male counterparts.

While all of this is concerning in and of itself, when you look at it in the context of the state of the world, it also has serious economic implications. Poor health, and lack of access to treatment and care, can make it more difficult to obtain an education, find a job or even engage in one's community. Vision impairment specifically poses an enormous global financial burden, with a recent study stating that this resulted in $410 billion in lost economic productivity in 2020 alone. When we look at solving the problem, we see that for every $1 invested in eye health in developing countries, it is estimated to yield a $4 economic gain. The same can be said for other health issues like childbirth practices and reproductive care, along with treatment for common lower respiratory diseases and tropical diseases like malaria. An increase in focus on these issues in sub-Saharan Africa alone would lead to 3.3 million more young adults living into 2040, increasing the labor force and increasing the annual GDP growth each year.

So, what do we do now?

First, we need to make a commitment to long-term cross-collaboration across all factions: philanthropy, government, medical institutions and more. We need to take a critical eye to governments, first to ensure they are building health infrastructures that really serve their citizens, then working to educate leaders and policymakers on the importance of investing in health care—and over time, increasing those investments to keep up with demand. We need philanthropic institutions to collaborate and integrate in a wholly transparent way that has never been seen before, with initiatives designed to address specific health care concerns working together.

Flying Eye Hospital
Chilean medical residents are trained in the latest techniques of ophthalmology surgery in the Flying Eye Hospital—an aircraft owned by U.S. NGO Orbis—in Santiago, on May 23, 2019. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP via Getty Images

In Africa, funded programs for girls and young women have shown tremendous impact in increasing the uptake of sexual and reproductive health services and in keeping girls in school. Taking a keen eye to where funds are going and where help is most needed, we need to invest in things like school-based programs to educate and remove the stigma around advocating for your own health, and training for health care professionals at all levels on the ground so they are able to continue to scale health care offerings, services and treatments. At Orbis, we lean into our Cybersight telemedicine platform to train eye care teams in areas where there might not even be an ophthalmologist, and that needs to become commonplace across other areas of health care as well.

If we're able to do this successfully, it will not only mean significant economic growth across many low- and middle-income countries, but it will also change the landscape of the world today, from business to politics. We'll have more women running for office or serving as officials in their communities. We'll have a lessened wage gap as women are increasingly able to achieve higher levels of education. And we'll have an entire generation of girls who feel empowered to advocate for themselves—not only within the realm of their own health care, but in all aspects of their lives.

On the individual level, involvement is easier than you think. Donate to programs that are making meaningful and sustainable changes across health care areas that speak to you. Educate yourself not only on health care challenges on a global scale, but also the ones happening in your own community or home. Function as a role model for other women and girls in your life, advocating for your health and rights within the wellness sector.

If we all do what we need to do, then gender equality can be achieved in this generation, but women have to lead from the front—and we have to have the health care and support to get them there.

Doris Macharia, MD, is the senior vice president of global programs for Orbis, a global nonprofit working to end avoidable blindness.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.