Breaking the Glass Ceiling for Global Progress

Global Health Day

From October, 2012

By Thomas Gaulkin, CIS Communications Coordinator

Photos by Lloyd DeGrane

Editor's note: Global Health Day was cosponsored by the Global Health Initiative, the Center for International Studies Norman Wait Harris Memorial Fund, and the International House Global Voices Program.

The Center for Global Health celebrated its inaugural Global Health Day on October 22 with a talk by US Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Melanne Verveer, who told an International House audience why researchers and policy makers should focus on women and girls “not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s the smart, effective, and strategic thing to do.”

Verveer was appointed by President Obama in 2009 to lead the Department of State’s newly created Office on Global Women’s Issues. The office coordinates foreign policy issues and activities relating to the political, economic and social advancement of women around the world. 

Verveer’s keynote address outlined the US government’s response to the needs of women and girls in the developing world. She explained how obstacles to gender equality are rooted in limited educational opportunities, violence, and lack of adequate health care, particularly reproductive health services.

250 million women around the world lack access to any form of modern contraception, Verveer said. Every year,an estimated 530,000 women die from largely preventable complications in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, twenty more suffer from injury, infection, or disease. 

In Verveer’s view, statistics like these demonstrate that the dire health needs of women throughout the world are still not considered important issues. “Even where health services are available,” she said, “the poor socioeconomic, educational, political, and legal status of women and girls too often prevent them from accessing the services that are available.”

Verveer, who previously served in the Clinton White House and led the effort to establish the President’s Interagency Council on Women, reiterated Secretary Clinton’s warning that “until women around the world are accorded their rights and afforded opportunities for education and health care and to participate fully economically and politically, global progress and global prosperity will have its own glass ceiling.”

The Obama administration has pursued a ‘woman and girl’ centered approach to development through its own Global Health Initiative. Established in 2009, the Initiative integrates the work of multiple US agencies to address health challenges in eighty countries throughout the world. Verveer said that participating countries receive specific guidance on how to integrate gender equality into their health and development programs.

The Global Health Day also marked the launch of the University’s new Center for Global Health, and featured an interdisciplinary panel discussion on ways students and health professionals can engage in meaningful international opportunities.  The Center, an evolution of the University's Global Health Initiative, is an interdisciplinary program dedicated to improving health and well-being through education, research and training, and service in partnership with communities in the US and around the world. 

Verveer lauded the interdisciplinary approach of the University’s efforts in global health, and compared them to the broad scope of the government’s programs. “The Center for Global Health is a key example of what is being done to engage many more individuals, groups, and partner institutions in efforts to eliminate the health disparities in countries around the world,” she said.

Verveer offered the Obama administration’s Feed the Future initiative as an example of programs that also support women in diverse ways. (See CIS’s Food (In)Security series for more on Feed the Future and other food related challenges and initiatives.) “In many countries, they are the majority of the small farmers,” she said. “But more often than not they do not have equal access to the resources, whether seeds and fertilizer or credit and opportunities to be at the decision-making table.” 

According to Verveer, studies have demonstrated that when women’s participation in agriculture is equalized with men’s, crop yields are increased by an average of 20-30% and productivity improves in ways that could feed an additional 150 million people. “Investing in women and girls in development terms is one of the highest yield investments that can be made for poverty alleviation,” she said.

Asked by an audience member to justify America’s international engagement, Verveer warned that our own security is at risk when the rest of the world is not prospering. “If we don't look at what’s happening elsewhere, it will affect us here at home before we know it,” she said. “The walls are gone, the borders are not the same. We have the compelling assignment to pay attention both at home and overseas. Because there's no other way out.”

Article courtesy of the Center for International Studies

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