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By: Reid Harrison, Coordinator, Life Sciences, BCIU

COVID-19 has placed a unique economic burden on women: the pandemic has resulted in more than $800 billion in lost income and over 64 million lost jobs for women in 2020 alone. Couple this economic disaster with a greater lack of access to adequate health services, and it is easy to see how the pandemic has created a vicious cycle for women when it comes to their economic, physical and mental health.

The ongoing crisis has disrupted family planning services for 12 million women, resulting in 1.4 million unintended pregnancies, which makes it harder for women to become financially independent and break the cycle of generational poverty. However, it does not have to be this way.

Globally, it is estimated that every $1 spent on addressing unmet needs for family planning yields $120 in health and economic benefits, and investing further in women’s equality could add between $12 trillion and $28 trillion to global growth. There are numerous areas of unmet medical need for women beyond contraception and fertility, such as postpartum hemorrhage (PPH), which kills tens of thousands of women every year globally and is one of the most common complications of giving birth.

An evolving tool that has been used to promote sustainable growth and gender equality has been sustainable bonds, part of a market that has seen rapid growth—including more than $45.6 billion invested in the first quarter of 2020. UN Women has been using sustainable bonds and working with governments to explain how they work to evaluate their appetite for such bonds based on their commitments to advance gender equality.

The nexus between women’s health and the need for global economies to recover from the pandemic stood out to BCIU and our partner Organon, so we convened a panel to discuss solutions to drive interventions and solutions on this topic.

If you weren’t able to participate in our discussion, please watch the full session of this program below and read on for key excerpts from our panel of experts:

Kevin Ali, CEO of Organon, kicked off our discussion by noting investing in women’s health not only means that women stay healthier, but that they also can be more economically productive. Providing a woman with the tools to choose when and how she has children is critical, noted Ali, to addressing low birth rates and ultimately driving economic growth. “The pandemic has shown us that health is wealth, but the opposite is also true. COVID has the potential to erase 15 years of global health progress—progress that has lifted us all,” said Ali. He mentioned that gender equity is critical to women’s health and prosperity and that when women are healthy and empowered, so too are their families, communities and nations.

Panelist Małgorzata Anna Bogusz, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee, noted that promoting women’s health is an integral part of EU country recovery plans. In particular, for 2021-2026 the EU made the largest-ever investment into national economies – €750 billion – significant amounts of which are planned for health care investments. Bogusz said, “When we work together with government, business, NGOs and think tanks, we can develop health care that works for the whole of society.” She cited, however, that far more incentives are needed to make sure that the health of women is at the top of the political and investment agenda and remains a key component of future GDP growth.

Panelist Kawaldip Sehmi, CEO of the International Alliance of Patients’ Organizations, reminded participants that nurses are a key component of the health care system and that women make up 70% of the health care workforce. To build back better, he noted, we need to invest in women’s health and need to design systems with patients’ safety in mind. Sehmi went on to highlight the need for innovative financing mechanisms and said, “Let’s get a gender bond [which entities can utilize specifically to support women empowerment and gender equality] structured and designed so we can finance women’s health safety.”

Panelist Anita Bhatia, Assistant Secretary-General at the United Nations and Deputy Executive Director for UN Coordination, Partnerships, Resources and Sustainability at UN Women, provided feedback on UN Women’s recent gender assessment surveys. Key takeaways from the pandemic included that in 4 out of 10 countries in Europe and Central Asia, at least half of women who needed family planning services experienced major difficulties in accessing them. In Asia and the Pacific, 60% of women reported more barriers to seeing a doctor. Bhatia said, “Policy makers who are interested in building back better need to have a very specific gender lens across all sectors of the economy.”

Panelist Tom Eveson, Director, Sustainable Finance Solutions and ESG for the Americas at Sustainalytics, discussed financing. He stated that sustainability-linked bonds offer an even broader opportunity since they allow for a general use of proceeds but are tied to specific key performance indicators (KPIs), such as percentage of women with access to affordable health care. In the last five years, he said, there has been tremendous growth in sustainable financing both in the private and government sectors, with the World Bank, IFC, IADB, and UN Women taking leading roles, especially in Latin America. Eveson said, “I encourage governments to be innovative, to think outside the box about where health programs can be financed and how to incorporate sustainable bonds into a national or regional program.”

BCIU will continue to lead on programming focused on women’s health, especially in the areas of gender equality, family planning and equitable access to health. If you are interested in discussing this article or future opportunities to partner with BCIU on these initiatives, please contact me at rharrison@bciu.org. Be sure to stay tuned to our upcoming programming by visiting our Events page.

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