How Women’s Empowerment Fosters Global Reproductive Health

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Mellissa Withers

Women’s empowerment starts from the premise that everyone deserves the opportunity to live a safe, flourishing life. Yet gender inequities, domestically and globally, continue to pose barriers for women and girls trying to access high-quality reproductive health care.

Raising awareness about preventive measures is a passion of Dr. Mellissa Withers, associate professor of clinical preventive medicine in the Department of Population and Public Health Sciences at the Keck School of Medicine of USC: “It’s one of the things that’s rewarding about teaching women’s empowerment, global health and issues around women’s rights.”

Empowering women can improve access to global reproductive health care — which can prevent maternal deaths, reduce unintended pregnancies and improve well-being around the world.

What Is Reproductive Health?

The World Health Organization defines reproductive health as well-being in all matters that pertain to a person’s reproductive activities and functions. The field of reproductive health promotes the idea that people should “have the capability to reproduce and the freedom to decide if, when and how to do so,” WHO says.

Areas of Reproductive Health

The field of reproductive health aims for all people to experience physical, mental and social well-being when it comes to sex, family planning and medical treatment pertaining to fertility, pregnancy, birth and parental care.

Areas of reproductive health include:

  • Disease management and prevention (including sexually transmitted infections, HIV/AIDS and cancer)
  • Family planning (including contraception methods)
  • Fertility
  • Abortion
  • Parental health (especially reducing maternal mortality)
  • Prenatal care
  • Infant health
  • Emergency contraception
  • Mental health (especially for supporting survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence)
  • Pregnancy (including adolescent pregnancy)
  • Sex work (including both legal and illegal activities)
  • Sex trafficking

Reproductive Health Effects

Reproductive health covers a wide range of topics, from lack of access to quality health care to sex trafficking. Many people are unaware of the universality of these issues, which are found both domestically and abroad.

Global perspectives on reproductive health illustrate just how pervasive these issues are — and how women’s empowerment can offer effective prevention strategies to address them.

A health care worker talks with a patient.

Global Reproductive Health

People deserve reproductive health everywhere. Yet studies show that economic injustice continues to perpetuate unmet needs for reproductive health care around the globe.

Global Reproductive Health Disparities

Global reproductive health sheds light on gender inequities that persist both abroad and domestically. A 2019 study by the Guttmacher Institute assessing reproductive health in 132 countries found that around 218 million women (ages 15-49) have unmet needs for modern contraception methods.

The institute estimates that 127 million women give birth in low- to middle-income countries annually, and most do not have adequate access to reproductive health care:

  • 50 million people make fewer than four medical visits prior to birth.
  • 16 million people lack access to health care following major obstetric complications.
  • 13 million newborns receive adequate health care for complications.

Moreover, people face sexual and reproductive risks that could be easily mitigated with access to improved reproductive health care:

  • 133 million people go without proper treatment for trichomoniasis, gonorrhea, chlamydia and syphilis.
  • 35 million people have abortions in unsafe conditions.
  • 299,000 people die due to complications in childbirth.

The Role of Prevention in Global Reproductive Health

Researchers in the field of global reproductive health study these phenomena to understand and prevent reproductive illness.

Prevention in the context of global reproductive health may mean:

  • Slowing the transmission of HIV through antiretroviral therapy, treatment and testing
  • Detecting diseases early with prenatal testing, as early screenings may detect preeclampsia and gestational diabetes
  • Improving access to prenatal care, as taking prenatal vitamins can prevent birth defects, including those that affect a baby’s brain and spine
  • Preventing unintended pregnancies with improved access to contraception
  • Treating STIs early, avoiding serious long-term health consequences such as infertility

“A huge emphasis is on prevention, whether it’s primary prevention [averting issues before they occur] or secondary prevention — stopping things from getting worse,” Dr. Withers says. “Why are we waiting? Why can’t we work on the prevention piece before these conditions happen?”

Researchers such as Dr. Withers know we should. For example, the Guttmacher Institute estimates that low- to middle-income countries could experience a 62% reduction in maternal deaths (186,000 deaths averted per year) and a 69% reduction in infant deaths (1.7 million deaths averted per year) with prevention strategies.

Prevention can save lives domestically, too. In the U.S., maternal mortality is currently increasing at an alarming rate; in 2019 the maternal mortality rate was around 3% higher than in 2018 (20.1 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2019, compared with 17.4 the previous year).

Advocating for Women’s Empowerment

Women’s empowerment is a broad term that encompasses the many ways that women and girls can flourish and achieve social, cultural and economic parity with men and boys.

In practice, empowering women everywhere can prevent global reproductive health issues — from enabling people to avoid unwanted pregnancies to educating professionals about how to spot the signs of sex trafficking.

“Lot of students are really shocked,” Dr. Withers says. “And maybe just not aware of the things that are happening to women around the world and even right here in the United States.”

Cultivating Community

The field of global health offers students many opportunities to support the health and well-being of their communities — sometimes directly through community outreach programs.

Dr. Withers won a grant to support women’s nutrition by securing a space where women could grow their own food. “I partnered with a [women’s] shelter that’s located very close to the main campus, and we were able to get $40,000 to build a garden,” she says. “We have students who work with the moms and students who work with the kids [conducting cooking classes and making a cookbook].”

Dr. Withers reflects that these kinds of community outreach programs put the power back into the hands of women and girls: “[The garden experience was] healing for the women who have really gone through some difficult times.” Growing plants from seeds, she says, was a “really a cathartic experience” for the participants.

And Dr. Withers hopes to see colleges and universities facilitate more experiences like these — “win-wins” for students and community members.

“That was really rewarding and something that universities can do more of — try to connect with the local communities.”

Empower Women in Global Reproductive Health

Focusing on prevention can expand reproductive health equity globally. Empowering women can take many forms, from providing economic support to taking compassionate, trauma-centered approaches to care.

Discover how you can promote equitable, effective public health by enrolling in USC’s online Master of Public Health (MPH) program, where you’ll work with faculty members such as Dr. Mellissa Withers. The USC online program is the only MPH in the country delivered by a top-ranked medical school with a world-renowned faculty. Learn more about how an MPH from USC can propel your career in public health today.

Recommended Readings

What Can You Do with a Master’s Degree in Public Health?

USC MPH Webinar: Hot Topics in Public Health

Important Vaccines in History

Sources:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Maternal Mortality Rates in the United States, 2019”

Global Nutrition Report, “Why Tackling Malnutrition Matters for Women’s Empowerment”

Guttmacher Institute, “Investing in Sexual and Reproductive Health in Low- and Middle-Income Countries”

Psychology Today, “It’s More Than Just Fight or Flight”

Psychology Today, “Using the Power of Technology to Fight Online Human Trafficking”

University of Southern California, USC Good Neighbors Grant Program

World Health Organization, Reproductive Health