Global health for women and girls: When partners communicate across sectors, everybody wins

By Kim Cernak, Deputy Director at Friends of the Global Fight Against AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and former Deputy Director of USAID’s Policy Office

Investing in women and girls’ well-being is key to unlocking greater well-being for all, yet significant gender barriers continue to undermine the fight against HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis (TB), malaria and other epidemics. HIV infects more than 1,000 adolescent girls and young women daily. Women in southern Africa are twice as likely to be living with HIV as men their own age. And both HIV/AIDS and TB are among the leading causes of death for women of reproductive age.

Global leaders highlighted the need for gender-targeted programming last year with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which put women and girls at the center of global aims to eradicate poverty, hunger, instability and disease threats by 2030.

But getting there requires an interdisciplinary, coordinated response worldwide. For their part, global health organizations are working collaboratively across sectors to expand gender parity in health services. Here are three major changes taking shape in global health to support women and girls:

Growing gender-targeted health services

We must evolve the fight against global epidemics to better reach women and girls, who are not accessing health services as they should.

Over the past six years, the Global Fund has significantly increased funding to address gender-related challenges. Today, 55-60 percent of Global Fund investments benefit women and girls, and those investments are helping: from 2005-2014, AIDS-related deaths among women declined by 58 percent in the hardest-hit African countries. For example, investments in Kenya have helped to integrate TB screening into programs focused on preventing mother-to-child transmission of HIV, resulting in a 43 percent increase in the number of women screened for TB during antenatal visits.

More sex and age-disaggregated data

At Women Deliver, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Co-chair Melinda Gates announced that the foundation will commit $80 million over the next three years to close gender data gaps and help accelerate progress for women and girls globally.

“We cannot close the gender gap without first closing the data gap,” she said in her keynote address. “We simply don’t know enough about the barriers holding women and girls back, nor do we have sufficient information to track progress against the promises made to women and girls. We are committed to changing that by investing in better data, policies and accountability.”

Joining programs across development sectors

Integration of programming across development sectors will be essential to closing the gender gap. A major link is being found, for example, between education and health. A 2015 study of Botswana found that, for each year of education a student received, there was an 8 percent reduction in the risk of HIV infection. A 2014 study found that, if the Global Fund increases its yearly per-capita disbursement for malaria programs over a child’s educational career by just 50 cents, students would receive nearly an additional grade level of education. Furthermore, the World Bank has found that an extra year of primary school for a girl translates to a future wage increase of 10-20 percent as an adult.

Global health leaders are responding with integrative funding and programming. In February, the Global Fund and partnersannounced funding for a new program to invest in the inter-connected health, educational and socio-economic needs of young women in Swaziland, Kenya, Zambia and South Africa, with plans for further expansion.

PEPFAR has also developed a partnership to support Determined, Resilient, Empowered, AIDS-free, Mentored and Safe women (the DREAMS initiative). DREAMS aims to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic by addressing systemic issues in 10 countries (Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe) that account for nearly half of new HIV infections in adolescent girls globally.

The next step

 On September 16, the government of Canada will host the Global Fund’s Fifth Replenishment Conference. The event, which brings together global leaders to pledge 2017-2019 funding for the HIV/AIDS, TB and malaria fight, will also serve as one of the first key financial tests of the gender-focused 2030 development agenda. The United States is the top donor to the Global Fund, contributing one-third of funding and demonstrating leadership through close engagement with other donors and stakeholders on technical and programmatic issues.

Such global investment is necessary to build upon and accelerate the progress we’ve seen to date. By investing steadily in data-driven, multi-sectoral strategies to address inequalities, we can pull down gender barriers. By working together as a global community, we can see real change in the lives of women and girls, leading to a more connected, healthy world.