In recent years, great strides have been made in improving women’s and children’s health. Fertility rates in both low and middle-income countries have significantly declined and life expectancy has increased by more than 10 years. Despite this progress, the WHO reports that a vast majority of maternal deaths (94%) occur in low-resource settings and most could have been prevented through adequate maternal care and other factors. Political and societal efforts to mitigate these disparities as well as ground-level health interventions are key to guarantee enduring improvements in women’s and children’s health. Empowering women improves maternal and child health outcomes in several ways.
Empowering Women Improves Maternal Health
Although the role of women’s empowerment as a social determinant of maternal and child health outcomes has not been as widely acknowledged as other social determinants such as education, it is a leading opportunity to improve the well-being of women and children around the world. Women’s empowerment is positively associated with an array of positive maternal and child health outcomes, such as improved antenatal care, contraceptive use, child mortality and nutrition levels.
Improved Maternal Health in Guinea and India
Another facet of maternal health that is linked with women’s empowerment is increased access to quality maternity care. The Republic of Guinea has committed to alleviating maternal and child health disparities by increasing women’s liberty. According to the 2018 Guinea Demographic Health Surveys, mothers who received higher quality antenatal care (ANC) also exhibited several aspects of women’s empowerment, such as having a proactive role in healthcare decisions and being employed.
In Varanasi, India, women’s autonomy and empowerment were also found to positively influence maternal health. A study of 300 women found that women with greater autonomy were more likely to deliver their baby in a clinic and employ higher levels of antenatal care.
Improved Maternal Health in Africa
Uniformly, a regional analysis of Africa revealed that dimensions of women’s empowerment impacted maternal health and utilization of health services. Researchers found that having greater control over money or household decisions correlated with higher Body Mass Index (BMI) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Uganda and Zambia. This is important because low maternal weight is a risk factor for low birth weight babies and adverse infant outcomes. Additionally, facility delivery was significantly associated with positive attitudes toward gender roles in Nigeria. Delivering in a clinic plays a large role in reducing maternal mortality as the majority of fatal pregnancy complications can be prevented if intervened by a skilled clinician.
Empowering Women Improves Child Health
In addition to improving maternal health, empowering women improves and enriches the health of their children. Studies have found a nexus between women’s empowerment and good child health outcomes, including higher utilization of health care services and immunizations, improved nutritional status and lower child mortality.
Women in Nepal who own land are significantly more likely to have authority over household decisions,and similarly, children of mothers who own land are significantly more likely to be a healthy weight. The connection between land ownership and feelings of empowerment mean women are more likely to use income to contribute to the well-being of the children and the family overall.
Organizations for Women’s Empowerment
Mending educational and economic inequalities and disadvantages that women and girls face are fundamental in empowering women and marking long-term and sustained improvements in women’s health. Offering scholarships, making schools a safe environment for girls and transforming beliefs and gender-biased social norms that perpetuate discrimination and inequality are avenues to create equal education opportunities. Additionally, governments and policymakers are pertinent to allocate resources necessary for gender equity and improving female health.
Self Help Groups (SHGs) are a great example of a simple yet effective solution to empower women who live in lower-income communities. Find Your Feet is an organization based in the U.K. that is working in Malawi and rural India to end rural poverty. The organization works with families in remote areas of Asia and Africa by helping them earn incomes and expand access to vital services. A key facet of its work is geared toward women’s empowerment and it has created SHGs throughout the poorest districts in India.
The Way Forward
Empowering women is a catalyst for not only better maternal and child health outcomes, but investing in a woman’s health and empowerment has a ripple effect, helping families, communities and countries to rise out of poverty.
– Samantha Johnson