What if you learned about an investment opportunity with an annual return of 120 times your initial contribution? What if this investment not only yielded benefits to you, but created long-standing social and economic benefits for families, communities and countries around the world? And what if this investment wasn’t speculative at all, but rather an assessment guaranteed to deliver promising and immediate results for all parties involved?
It might be hard to imagine, but this opportunity exists: it’s an investment in reproductive health for women and girls.
This Sunday, International Women’s Day marks an important occasion to raise awareness about health and empowerment challenges affecting our mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts, colleagues and friends, particularly in the developing world. We also believe it’s an opportunity to drive home the point that addressing these issues is not just humanitarian in nature, but a smart investment with significant social and financial returns.
An article published in The Economist earlier this year underscored the enormous, and frankly surprising, dividends fueled by reproductive-health investments. Citing a research project called the Post-2015 Consensus, it noted that “providing contraception and other reproductive-health services to all who want them would cost $3.6 billion a year . . . , generat[ing] annual benefits of $432 billion – $120 per dollar spent.”
So how is this staggering return on investment possible? First, there’s the immediate health impact of saving lives. Currently, nearly 300,000 women and 3 million newborns die every year during pregnancy and childbirth. If we met the family-planning needs of all 225 million women who want – but still lack access to — contraception, we would enable women to more safely space their pregnancies and prevent tens of millions of unplanned pregnancies. The result would be an astonishing one-third decline in maternal deaths and one quarter drop in newborn deaths. In South Africa, for example, children have a 15 times greater risk of dying following a mother’s early death compared to children whose mothers survived. Preserving all these lives would save roughly $15 billion in lost productivity each year, allowing thousands more healthy women and children to contribute to their families, communities and economies.
Keeping women alive during pregnancy and childbirth also has a dramatic impact on family health and well being. Women are typically the primary caretakers, far more likely than men to spend precious family income on essential household needs like food and medicine. This means children are much less likely to suffer poor health or die prematurely, saving unnecessary expenditures on preventable illness and allowing poor countries to devote their limited resources to other pressing development challenges. Additionally, women’s unpaid contributions in the home – like child care, farming and maintaining the household – equal aboutone-third of the world’s gross national product. So ensuring that women survive childbirth instantly enhances their families’ livelihood, amplifies their productivity and lays the groundwork for even more pronounced economic effects on their communities and countries.
Too many girls and women around the world lack autonomy, and decision-making power, even with respect to their own reproductive health. A recent World Bank analysis found that across 54 developing countries, almost half of married women felt unable to ask their husband to use a condom, and more than one-third lacked a say in their own health care. If all women and girls were empowered to decide whether and when to have children, they would, collectively, transform the global economy. For girls – who might otherwise face early pregnancy – access to contraception means staying in school longer, contributing to a much-needed pool of talent for countries striving to grow their economies. And as girls get older, they not only learn practical skills that translate directly to the work force, but also become consumers themselves. In fact, one could argue that women are the world’s largest “emerging market,” with purchasing power valued at $6 trillion over the next five years. Investing in reproductive health for women and girls creates boundless economic opportunities for them and translates into stronger, healthier and more prosperous families, communities and countries.
Health is one of our most fundamental human rights, inextricably linked to our aspirations for a stable, thriving global community. If it’s possible to increase the chance that our girls and women have access to better health – which in turn benefits the global economy – is there any better investment?
Jeni Klugman is a fellow at the Kennedy School of Government’s Women in Public Policy Program at Harvard University, where she is teaching a course on gender inequality and development. Purnima Mane is the president and CEO of Pathfinder International, an NGO devoted to advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. The authors are participating in a panel discussion titled “Smart Economics: Women’s Reproductive Health” at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ Global Health Symposium.