July 16, 2018 Belén Garijo, CEO Merck Global

Healthy Women Make for Healthy Economies

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It is a fantastic time to get engaged in efforts to achieve gender equality.

Though long in coming, the voices of women are projecting far and wide - even in countries where very few of us would have predicted only a few years ago. Yet, too many women in too many places around the world are still not treated as full-fledged members of society. Despite the progressive movements that are pressing for change, vast inequities remain worldwide.

In many nations, being female still means being born with a life-long disadvantage. Gender affects educational attainment, health status, personal safety, professional success, ability to exercise political power, and social standing.

The suppression of women is unfair and unjust.

It is also a bad investment that hampers the economic prosperity of families, communities and nation states. Evidence abounds that demonstrates this fact and one recent study by McKinsey is particularly telling: In a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.

Additionally, decades of studies have traced and quantified the important links between health and economic growth and prosperity. Take Great Britain, for example, research tells us that improvements in health and nutrition explain about 30% of the growth in the economic output of the country between 1800 and 1980. And that a 10% increase in life expectancy generates a 0.4% increase in economic growth. These statistics are compelling.

Data from the International Labor Organization indicates that 865 million of our mothers, daughters and sisters across the globe are not adequately “prepared” through education or “enabled” through sufficient social and political support to engage with the labor market.

In addition, where the health of women is deprioritized, economic growth will fall short of its potential. Yet, healthcare systems in many countries fail women in many ways.

Just to cite one block of evidence: We know that health systems often favor male patients to the detriment of women. For example, treatment guidelines for non-communicable diseases are often created for men and based on men’s symptoms and this can lead to misdiagnoses and delayed treatment for women. The fact that women are much more likely than men to die within a year of a heart attack is astonishing. It is also, as is the case with many gender inequities, preventable. And it is in the best social, human and economic interest of all – countries, the private sector, communities and families - to remedy these inequities.

If studies tell us that healthier women are key and essential contributors to healthier economies, why isn’t more being done to safeguard the health of women and girls?

As a longstanding provider of innovative solutions for diseases like multiple sclerosis that affect women disproportionately, our company is proud to be committing resources to better understand how to improve the health and well-being of women around the globe so they can bring prosperity home to their families.

We are restless and relentless in our quest to draw on all our experience and capacity to spearhead initiatives and support policies that can enhance productivity and advance gender equality. This is one of the reasons that we came together with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in 2014 to establish a public private-partnership called Healthy Women, Healthy Economies (HWHE). As the private sector founder of this initiative, we are immensely proud of the work we undertook with our partners to develop an actionable toolkit and platform that governments, nonprofits and companies can follow to promote the health and economic participation of women.

The initiative’s ambitious agenda and comprehensive approach has been embraced by governments and many other partners.

The HWHE initiative looks at access issues (women as consumers of health care), as well as the interface between women and the production of health care through paid and unpaid work and the impact on women’s economic participation and success in the workplace.

In particular, HWHE is focused on easing and making more equitable the caregiving responsibilities at home - such as childrearing or caring for sick or elderly family members – that are so often entirely placed on women.

My hope is that our efforts will encourage others in the private sector to address the issues of women’s health, whether in partnership with HWHE or as independent actors.

Beyond the arguments of basic decency, we cannot ignore the compelling business evidence which shows how healthy women make for healthy economies.

A world in which gender is no longer a barrier to an individual achieving their full economic, social and political potential is a world in which a rising economic tide will lift all boats – of individuals and families, but also of societies and the companies that do business with them. Everyone benefits when you have a nation of healthy individuals, empowered communities and a healthcare system which works for everyone.

This is the world I would prefer to inhabit.

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