For decades now, women have been classified as the ‘vulnerable’ section of society. Recent statistics suggest that while women make up for half of the world’s population, they represent 70% of the poor population. The majority of women from low income communities across developing countries have a very low standard of living and face discrimination just on account of being a woman. Globally, over time, women have become recognized as drivers of progress. Empowering women has gained increasing prominence as a development priority. While there has been progress, there still exists a disparity in terms of economic and social equity for women. A larger reason for this can be attributed to the looming health inequity which has led to further income inequity.

In Asia, girls are more likely to die before their fifth birthdays than boys and the progress on reducing maternal mortality is bleak. In 2013 alone, approximately 300,000 women died due to pregnancy and child birth. Low income women also face health issues due to lack of sanitation availability and awareness. For example, menstrual hygiene is very poor in South Asia. In Bangladesh, 80% of women use an old cloth for absorption and in India alone, 300 million women and girls do not have access to safe menstrual hygiene products.

The poor health and hygiene for women can be attributed to the lack of affordable facilities and awareness. However, the other more obvious reason is the neglect of issues like menstrual and reproductive health. These neglected issues have not only spelled diseases and risks on women’s health, but also affected the economic progress of women.

While large scale interventions exist to ensure better health for women, in the last few years, social enterprises (SEs) and development programs have used women themselves to break social barriers, which has been a redefining movement for women progress and development. SEs have managed to take a step in solving female health care problems along with providing some economic relief. They have done so by leveraging market innovations and women from low-income communities who have in turn managed to change mindsets and create impact. For example, in countries like Bangladesh, India and Cambodia, an SE called New Incentives, based on the model of conditional cash transfers, provides women with an opportunity to earn an income provided they invest some of their income in human capital needs such as education and health. This has helped women who live on less than US$0.30/day to invest in better health and education for themselves and their families.

In terms of menstrual health, the female sanitary revolution has caught on, especially in India, with many enterprises producing low cost sanitary napkins and/or shattering social myths by addressing the information gap. For example, Aakar Innovations produces and distributes low cost sanitary napkins called Anandi Pad to women in rural areas. It runs a mini factory with a simple technology that uses indigenous raw materials to make these comfortable low cost napkins. In addition, the SE is also creating female micro-entrepreneurs who benefit from using hygienic menstrual options as well as spreading awareness about the same in rural India.

Another important advancement that’s helping women to progress is voluntary family planning. This has been achieved by creating demand for contraceptives and ensuring an efficient delivery service. The use of contraceptives and family planning programs has become a part of larger programs that focus on the reproductive and maternal health of women. This has been aided by the growing concept of community health workers. The BRACs Shahtho Shebika concept under the essential health care (EHC) program engages women from low income communities to be community health workers. This has been highly successful in promoting family planning, sanitation and pregnancy related care to both men and women via a door-to-door service provided by the Shahtho Shebika (female community health workers).

While SEs have made a significant difference in promoting better health for women, the collective impact made is still very small when stacked against the overall problem. Much more needs to be done to help promote and scale more SEs involved in such efforts. The health inequity for women is now a development emergency. Harnessing community based approaches with life-saving technologies and innovations for bettering women health is imperative to ensuring gender equality and empowerment.

With less than 100 days left for The Millennium Development Goals (MDG) that envisions freeing the world from extreme poverty, the development community needs to revisit the agenda of women. As the world moves towards creating a new development framework that looks beyond the 2015 MDGs, it is essential that better health and hygiene for women is included as a priority to ensure the economic empowerment and progress of women.

By Noopur Desai
Research, Shujog