Bringing Washington to Kuala Lumpur

by Crystal Lander and Brigid Boettler

(Photos by MSH/Brigid Boettler, CARE/Ben Weingrod, and MSH/Rachel Hassinger)

For seven days last month, Management Sciences for Health was proud to host six Congressional staffers as they participated in a study tour to Malaysia—to learn about how the country has made major global health investments and how those investments have saved the lives of women and families.

The staffers—Adriane Casalotti, Legislative Director (Rep. Lois Capps, D-CA), John Ariale, Chief of Staff (Rep. Ander Crenshaw, R-FL), Maggie Dougherty, Legislative Aide (Senator Marco Rubio, R-FL), Aaron Allen, Legislative Assistant (Rep. Juan Vargas, D-CA), Kelli Ripp, Legislative Aide (Rep. Aaron Schock, R-IL), and Melinda Cep, Policy Advisor (Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-CT)—took part in 17 different educational briefings, networking receptions, dinner panels and meetings.

Staffers met with over 50 technical, political, advocacy, and global health experts and heard personal stories from mothers, patients, and global health advocates from around the world. A noted highlight of the tour included a meeting with US actor/singer/humanitarian Mandy Moore, who described firsthand the benefits of malaria bednet distribution projects in Central Africa.

An added benefit of  this informational tour of Malaysia was the staffers’ opportunity to attend the 3rd Women Deliver Conference, this decade’s largest event on maternal health and women’s rights. Along with over 4,500 attendees from around the world, the US staffers were able to attend sessions of their interest.

Thanks to the Ministry of Health of Malaysia and the Negeri Sembilan Family Planning Association (the leading voluntary family planning, sexual and reproductive health organization in Malaysia), the study tour included visits to Putrajaya, the small town of Seremban, and the historic city of Melaka to visit government and NGO reproductive health clinics and youth centers. During a tour of the Negeri Sembilan Family Planning Association, the staffers joined a group of neighborhood youth to identify important “social ills” that children and adolescents face in Malaysia. All of these site visits served as vivid demonstrations of the benefits of Malaysia’s investment in maternal and child health.

As the study tour came to a close, the staffers found themselves informed, inspired, and better able to understand the cross-cutting investment that is maternal health and women’s rights.

“Just think of all the good that could come from advocating for ensuring that women and girls have the right to access maternal and reproductive healthcare … women’s rights and access to maternal and reproductive healthcare must be a highlight of our global development agenda,” John Ariale blogged during the tour. “The issue is too important to ignore, or be mired in obtuse political innuendo. With the right focus and attention we can ensure that sexual and reproductive health is readily available and sustainable for all women.”

Learn more about the Congressional Study Tour

Crystal Lander is the director of policy and advocacy, and Brigid Boettler the outreach and events specialist, at MSH.

Universal Health Coverage Highlighted at Women Deliver: Good for Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

by Barbara Ayotte

Universal health coverage received a lot of play at the recent Women Deliver conference. Universal health coverage (UHC) is a mechanism for health that ensures affordable, accessible, quality care for all. Over 50 countries are on their way toward achieving UHC, and several have already attained it. Many have supported UHC as an overall framework for the health goals in the Post-2015 development agenda.

One of the first questions arising with UHC is how to pay for it. At a session on Wednesday afternoon, May 29th, panelists gathered to discuss UHC and financing. The panel was organized by Population Services International (PSI). According to Ben Bellows of Population Council, who started off the discussion, “UHC systems are characterized by quality and low out-of-pocket costs to consumers.” Bellows spoke about Kenya’s scaling up of voucher programs for family planning and other services. The government of Kenya budgeted for procurement of voucher services and the program resulted in addressing 70 percent of unmet needs in two of the poorest quintiles. “Family planning vouchers are an entry point for UHC, targeting uncovered populations. They bring quality improvement, reduced out-of-pocket spending, and are a useful entry point for a more expanded package of services later. “

Ben Bellows of Population Council. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Ben Bellows of Population Council. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Panelist Dr. Jonathan D. Quick, MSH President and CEO, highlighted two goals of UHC: improve health (including maternal health and family planning) and reduce medical impoverishment due to out-of-pocket payments. Quick suggested taking a look at the delivery side as a way to transform a health system toward UHC–especially a look toward medicines, where 50 percent of out-of-pocket spending is spent on medicines and 150 million are medically impoverished. “If we are to restructure funds and financing, we have to look at pharmaceuticals, including contraceptives. Informal drug shops are where most people get their medicines—typically poor quality at a high price. But in Tanzania, with funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, MSH and the private sector transformed these drug shops into licensed drug sellers, selling items that included sanitary products, so girls can stay in school, and antimalarials. Ninety percent of these sellers are women. We need to ask, ‘Are informal drug shops included in UHC programs?’” said Quick. “In Tanzania, yes, the national insurance fund is reimbursing them. In Ghana, they are part of the program. “

Jono Quick of MSH. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Jono Quick of MSH. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Rob Yates of the World Health Organization (WHO) asserted, “Public financing is key to UHC in order for all people to receive the quality health services they need without suffering financial hardship.” But who is covered, what services, what do people pay out of pocket?

Yates spoke about health financing in Sierra Leone.  In Sierra Leone, the president launched free care for women and children. Health centers that had been empty before due to high cost were suddenly full. “Private, voluntary, financing mechanisms are not a good way to finance a health system,” he said. Yates noted that Jim Kim, President of the World Bank, recently stated that user fees are unjust. “Public compulsory insurance works—it forces the healthy and wealthy to subsidize the poor,” said Yates. “More groups in the formal and informal sector have emerged to join social and voluntary insurance schemes. Some countries use public monthly tax funding to cover the untargeted informal sector. Sri Lanka, Brazil, Thailand, Mexico, China, Malaysia, Fiji, Ghana, Rwanda, and Costa Rica have all achieved UHC. Three to watch in the next decade are South Africa, India, and Indonesia. Public financing can come from income tax, natural commodities tax, oil revenue.”

Yates continued, “UHC is easy to understand—an attainable goal—especially as countries make the transition to become middle income states. UHC brings politics into the health systems agenda. It is an opportunity to celebrate national successes. “

UHC and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights

International Planned Parenthood Foundation (IPPF) and WHO sponsored another UHC session on Wednesday evening, moderated by Dr. Quick of MSH.

Jono Quick of MSH. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Jono Quick of MSH. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Dr. Quick began the session with four propositions: 1. Global momentum for UHC is accelerating; 2.) UHC is the only approach for women and girls; 3) Understand potential risks of UHC; 4) Informed advocates will make all the difference in minimizing those risks.

Yates offered UHC as the health umbrella in the Post-2015 development framework. “UHC is not a great insurance plot or communism by the back door. It is a whole movement. UHC is about ALL people receiving the quality services that they need. It’s about curative services—and also about financial protection and about what should be in a benefits package. ..UHC is inherently political— which is a good thing.”

Rob Yates. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Rob Yates. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Yates continued: “UHC is a good idea for the health community to rally around. Everyone can understand it. It is inspiring and motivational. People understand ‘We demand universal health care.’  People get it. They don’t get ‘we want healthy life expectancy.’  UHC captures the imagination of politicians and the UN.  It’s political for all the right reasons and sensible to unite the health community around it—otherwise, divided we fall.”

Anjali Sen. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Anjali Sen. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Panelist Anjali Sen of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) said that IPPF works to provide access to quality sexual and reproductive health right (SRHR) services regardless of ability to pay. “We know the health risks to women and children. Populations are younger.Young women give birth. Maternal mortality is high and the contraceptive prevalence rate is low.  Women are denied basic health care. IPPF supports a concept of UHC that is enshrined in our philosophy of equity and links care to need: Give the poorest and most vulnerable access without pushing them further into poverty. “ Sen stated that IPPF hopes UHC is included in Post- 2015 framework and wants UHC to include sexual reproductive health rights in essential benefit packages: ”SRHR must be part of the package. For the right to health to be truly universal, it must look at the health of women. SRHR is a critical component yet often neglected in global schemes. Only 20 UHC schemes include SRHR/FP in their essential benefits package. We all know that SRHR was belatedly added to the MDGs—too little, too late. Progress toward meeting the unmet need for family planning has cost women dearly. “

Caroline Halmshaw. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Caroline Halmshaw. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Panelist Caroline Halmshaw of Interact/Action for Global Health asserted that there is no guarantee that SRHR will be in the Post -2015 development framework. But we need to ensure SRHR is embedded in other goals. “We also need unity in the health sector on UHC,” said Halmshaw.” For UHC to succeed, we must address the stigma and discrimination toward women and overcome it. UHC has to make sure people who are excluded are covered now. How will we include the most marginalized? People in sex work, criminals; all those who have no access to government services? UHC is huge opportunity for the SRHR community. UHC is a health systems approach.”

Jackson Chekweko. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Jackson Chekweko. (Photo credit: MSH/Ayotte)

Panelist Jackson Chekweko of Reproductive Health Uganda, spoke to an example in Uganda:  “Uganda abolished user fees in 2011, resulting in an uptake in family planning and maternal health services. UHC will be a given—yet how do we get governments to secure funding for UHC? Civil society pushed government to improve on this.“

Yates concluded, “UHC is a developing country agenda. [Developing countries] are the ones pushing UN resolutions. The UHC movement is happening worldwide; we can’t ignore it. And it is a safe goal. Yet, each country will need to grapple with rationing. No country has universal coverage for everything immediately— not everything is free or even high quality. For example, cancer treatments are expensive. It is naive to think we will get everything. All of civil society has to decide what’s in or out, when we think UHC. “

UHC: A Women’s Issue

Dr. Quick conducted a TED-style talk during Thursday’s “To the Point” series on “Why UHC is a Women’s Issue.”

Barbara Ayotte is director of strategic communications at MSH.

 

Women’s Rights and Access to Maternal and Reproductive Healthcare

Editor’s note: This guest post from John Ariale, one of the participants in the MSH-led congressional study tour, originally appeared on Vantage Points.

As someone who has worked on international development issues from my desk in Washington, I was excited to participate in the 2013 Women Deliver Conference last week in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The conference afforded me an amazing opportunity to listen and talk to a variety of people from 149 countries about their experiences and views related to the health and well-being of women and girls. A recurring theme that emerged from the week was the issue of women’s sexual and reproductive health. I have never written about reproductive health before, but I’ll credit that up to never spending a week at a conference focused on maternal and reproductive health before this experience.

Since returning home, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the issue of reproductive health and I firmly believe that we need to start thinking about this issue in a different way – through the lens of a woman or a young girl in a developing country, and with an eye on equality.

In the U.S., we all face the reality that a majority of young adults engage in sexual relations outside marriage, and we educate our kids to wait to have sexual relationships – preferably until marriage. But as parents, we also want to ensure that they know how to protect themselves when they decide to engage in such activities.

This was a key part of the international dialogue I participated in; however, on the international front, in many poor or developing countries, access to reproductive health includes a very different reality.

That reality is that girls and women’s rights are systematically violated in too many places around the world today. (I would encourage anyone reading this or interested in this issue to check out the trailer, and the movie called Girl Rising, an innovative new feature film that highlights the struggles of women and girls around the world). In some cultures, it is still considered acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for not having sex. In too many places, girls are forced into marriage at far too young an age. HIV disproportionately impacts women. In many cultures, when reproductive health options are available, a woman’s male partner often vetoes her decision to use those options.

Women and girls in developing nations are more likely to become mothers at a young age. We know that pregnancy during adolescence has serious health impacts for girls and their babies. There are complications from pregnancy and childbirth – which is the leading cause of death among girls, aged 15-19 in developing countries.

Approximately one in three women will experience gender-based violence in her lifetime. In some pacific countries, more than 60% of women and girls experienced violence at the hands of their partners.

I met a woman from the Congo at the conference. We were discussing access to female contraception and she explained to me that access to female condoms in her village have been transformative because women and girls are now using these resources when walking miles to the wells to get water. The incidence of rape is so great, that these women and girls have decided to use female condoms to avoid unwanted pregnancies.

In developing countries, desire for smaller families and the motivation for healthy spacing of births has steadily increased. Yet, 222 million women in developing countries do not have the ability to determine the size of their families, or have a say in the planning of their families.

MDG 5 — Improve Maternal Health — has two sub targets. Target 5A set a target of reducing maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015, while Target 5B set a target of universal access to reproductive health.

The achievement of the MDGs is strongly underpinned by the progress that the world makes on sexual and reproductive health. It is a pillar for supporting the overall health of communities, in particular, that of women. Ill health from causes related to sexuality and reproduction remains a major cause of preventable death, disability, and suffering among women. Apart from the health consequences, poor sexual and reproductive health contributes significantly to poverty, inhibiting affected individuals’ full participation in their own social and economic development.

I was surprised to learn that the world has not made as much progress on this front as is needed to meet MDG5 by 2015. Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have shown little progress in recent years; some have even lost ground. Globally, the rate of death from pregnancy and childbirth declined between 1990 and 2005 by only 1% per year. In order to be on track to achieve MDG 5, a 5.5% annual rate of decline was needed from 2005 to 2015.

During my week at the conference, our group was fortunate enough to have a conversation with Melinda Gates. We were all enlightened and her comments during our conversation were extremely helpful to me. Mrs. Gates stated that when she talks about health with women from developing countries, they explain to her that their job is to feed the children. They explain that if they cannot space out their births, they cannot work or properly care for and feed the other children. In many places, Melinda explained that while condoms might be readily available, women – due to cultural perceptions – couldn’t even fathom negotiating the use of condoms because it means they are suggesting that their partner might have AIDs or that she is trying to say she has AIDs.

The Gates Foundation does not fund abortions, and has it right when they state that we need to put girls and women at the center of this debate. We need to start trusting one another and realize that “family planning” is not code for anything else in this debate.

As the week progressed, I became certain that the only way for the world to begin to correct this problem is for us to start trusting one another and to look at this issue as an equality rights one, not something else. Advancing equality among boys and girls and men and women is a goal we can all support.

I am confident that if we are successful in achieving equality, many other aspects of this problem begin to fall into place. Perhaps, once achieved, we might even begin to have a significant impact on achieving MDG5.

Just think of all the good that could come from advocating for ensuring that women and girls have the right to access maternal and reproductive health care. Treating women and girls all around the world equally might eradicate early and forced marriage, keep girls in school, give women a say in their family planning, and end gender-based violence.

One of my take-aways from the conference was that women’s rights and access to maternal and reproductive healthcare must be a highlight of our global development agenda. The issue is too important to ignore, or be mired in obtuse political innuendo. With the right focus and attention, we can ensure that sexual and reproductive health is readily available and sustainable for all women.

John Ariale is chief of staff for Congressman Ander Crenshaw.

MSH Spotlights Fragile States at Women Deliver

(Photos by Willow Gerber/MSH)

by Filmona Hailemichael

Filmona Hailemichael (Photo credit: R. Hassinger/MSH)

Filmona Hailemichael (Photo credit: Hassinger/MSH)

On Tuesday, May 28, MSH brought together fragile states staff from Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Haiti, and Afghanistan to share their field experiences with congressional staffers in Malaysia for the Women Deliver conference. The dinner panel, “Delivering Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (MNCH) in Fragile and Post-Conflict States,” featured Philippe Tshiteta of MSH DRC, Sandra Guerrier of MSH Haiti, and Dr. Mushfiq of MSH Afghanistan, and also Sandra Krause, the director of sexual and reproductive health at Women’s Refugee Commission, and Paola Cirillo, the Syria and Middle East program officer at Italian NGO AIDOS.

The five panelists shared vivid stories of the major barriers to and strategies for delivering MNCH and reproductive health services in the difficult contexts in which they work.

Despite many challenges, the common emergent theme was that simple, low cost interventions—such as having skilled birth attendants, immunizations, and proper hand washing—can have powerful impacts on effectively saving lives and improving the health of women and children even in post-conflict and post-disaster settings. The event left attendees with a better sense of the on-the-ground realities that MNCH health workers face in fragile states and an improved understanding of the need for improvements to health systems infrastructures in these environments.

Read more about MSH’s work in fragile states.

Filmona Hailemichael is a manager of policy and advocacy at MSH.

Photo blog: WOMEN LEAD with…

A version of this post originally appeared on the LMGforHealth.org blog.


(Photos by Sarah Lindsay, Rachel Hassinger, Willow Gerber, and Barbara Ayotte / MSH)

The theme of the first day of Women Deliver 2013 was Investing in Women and Girls. During the day, MSH and the Leadership, Management, and Governance (LMG) project held a panel on investing in women as leaders of the health system.

At the MSH booth, we asked conference attendees to tell us the diverse ways women lead around the world.

Add your voice:

Post a comment reply below to add your voice to the “WOMEN LEAD with…” conversation.

Let Girls Be Girls, Not Brides


(Photos by Willow Gerber/MSH)

Cross-posted with permission from LMGforHealth.org.

By Willow Gerber

Every year, an estimated 14 million girls are forcibly married before they turn 18 . . . that’s something like 39,000 girls every day! That’s the first thing I heard as I walked into the late afternoon session on child marriage presented at the Women Deliver Conference in Kuala Lumpur this week. Beyond the moral question of this issue, there are huge health and welfare implications. Low- and middle-income countries are now focusing on girl brides and child marriage because they recognize that they can’t reach their development goals otherwise. Donor countries are also interested for similar reasons; child marriage has an enormous impact on economic development and global health.

Among the panelists at this session, aptly titled “Let Girls be Girls, Not Brides,” were Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda (World YWCA), Suzanne Petroni (International Center for Research on Women), Lakshmi Sundaram (Global Coordinator for the Girls Not Brides campaign), and Sarita Prabhakar Wagh, a young woman from India who convinced her parents not to marry her off while she was still a girl. Each presented compelling research and information that was beyond belief. A study by Anita Raj, PhD, on the prevalence of child marriage and its impact on fertility in India suggests that just a 10 percent drop in child marriage could lead to a 70 percent drop in maternal mortality. In developing countries, the leading cause of death for girls 15 to 19 years old is complications from pregnancy and childbirth. This situation of “bonded labor,” as it’s sometimes described, also contributes to high morbidity rates, lower literacy rates, and harmful social norms where girls continue to be under-valued.

Young girls are fortunate when support comes from those at home. Ms. Wagh told the audience that her father said about her when she was young, “Until she is well educated, we will not even discuss marriage!” She credited her father for her own emancipation, and said he was extremely supportive.

As health professionals, many of us are aware that higher numbers of girl brides mean higher morbidity, higher maternal and child mortality, higher risk of HIV and AIDS, higher vulnerability to domestic violence, lower rates of literacy, So how can health leaders, managers, and policy-makers help, particularly if they work in one of the 10 countries with the highest rates of child marriage (that includes Niger, Chad, Central African Republic, Bangladesh, Guinea, Mozambique, Mali, Burkina Faso, South Sudan, and Malawi)? They can do three things:

  1. First and foremost, they can help prevent it by letting parents know the health dangers associated with child marriage.
  2. Just as importantly, they can provide sexual and reproductive health information and contraception to the young girls (and boys) who are already married.
  3. They can also ensure that health workers get the knowledge and skills they need to understand the adverse effects of early marriage, and promote a supportive environment for child brides who enter the health system so that they are not stigmatized.

To learn more and get the facts, go to www.girlsnotbrides.org.

MSH, Girls Not Brides, and the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) organized the “Let Girls Be Girls, Not Brides: Working Together to End Child Marriage” session held on Tuesday, May 28.