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It pays to invest in women

KUALA LUMPUR—Charles “Sola” Ogundipe, health editor of the Vanguard Media of Nigeria, has a wonderful story that illustrates the many issues confronting participants of the “Women Deliver” conference in this city.

Sola is a male journalist, and upon his arrival here, the immigration officer wanted to know what a man—and a man from Africa—was doing coming to Malaysia to cover a conference on women. Even after showing his press credentials, his invitation from the organizers, and communications about his attendance, he was still brought to the immigration office for further questioning.

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“Why would a man want to write about women’s issues?” he was asked. Any other traveler would have felt harassed, if not threatened. But Sola said he took the opportunity to “deliver a 10-minute lecture on the health and welfare of girls and women.” “Even if you are a man,” he told his interrogator, “you still have a mother, a sister, a friend or a wife. And their good health and survival is important to you.” He was let go, with some of the immigration officials wishing him well.

Sola told this story on the sidelines of a “High-level Media Forum” where he was a speaker in a panel on reporting on issues “in trying circumstances.” The forum sought to discuss the main issues to be tackled in “Women Deliver,” but it also sought to find out how the media could become partners in the important work of conveying the so-called “flower issues,” including health and gender, to the greater public. This, even as the audience seems more interested in so-called weightier matters like politics, finance,  and conflict.

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One question that arose during the forum, one in fact brought up by Sola, was whether a story on health or gender could gain greater credibility—and even win front-page treatment—if it was bylined by a man or a woman.

“There are advantages and disadvantages in using men and women reporters,” observed Lisa Anderson, editor of TrustLaw Women and a correspondent of the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “There are circumstances, such as in conflicts and disasters, and in certain settings, where a man would be safer and more acceptable to authorities. But a woman can also prove more empathetic and get victims—especially women and girls—to open up and share more intimate details.”

Some NGOs, such as the Pulitzer Center based in the United States, are also seeking to redefine, or perhaps expand, the traditional boundaries of journalism. Nathalie Applewhite, the managing director of the center, spoke of how it had been working to go beyond the “breaking news” mentality and look past the immediate crisis to “surface underreported issues and root causes” of violence, disaster and their aftermath.

K. Oanh Ha, bureau chief in Vietnam of Bloomberg News, told of how its own sharper gender focus arose from the resolve of Matt Winkler, its editor in chief, to focus on women both as subjects of stories and sources of information, opinion and authority. This has resulted, she said, in stories that examine women’s issues from an economic and business standpoint. An example: a story that studied the impact of sexism in Japan, with the reporter citing statistics that said the country’s GDP would increase by as much as 15 percent if Japanese women enjoyed more autonomy and weren’t so tied down by domestic duties.

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This was the point raised by Jill Sheffield, president and founder of “Women Deliver,” who argued that “issues around women and development should be in the business pages.”

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“If the cost of a normal delivery costs X,” said Sheffield, “then complications during delivery will result in X plus 50, 60, 100.” Investing in women pays, she asserted, because investing right now in better healthcare, including the provision of family planning services and childcare, which are relatively low-cost interventions, would result in huge savings for governments, societies and families.

“Women Deliver” handouts graphically portray the gains to be made by “investing in women.” If governments doubled their investment in family planning, as much as $15 billion would be saved annually worldwide due to improved productivity, a cut in time lost due to pregnancy-related illness and death, and increased productivity and employment. On the human side, unintended pregnancies would go down by 60 percent, 35 percent of newborn deaths would be averted, and unsafe abortions reduced by 70 percent. In both financial and personal terms, investing in the health of women, girls and their babies pays.

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Malaysia is a “regional leader” itself when it comes to maternal health. Over the last 20 years, the country has reduced maternal mortality rates dramatically—from about 800 per 100,000 shortly after independence to 29 today. (In contrast, the Philippine mortality rate has actually risen, from 162 per 100,000 in 2009 to 221 in 2011, almost 10 times that of Malaysia.)

Anjli Doshi (not Anjili Doski, as I erroneously wrote yesterday), acting director general of Malaysia’s National Population and Family Development Board, admitted that it enjoys a “big budget” from the national government, which views this as an “investment” in women and young people.

As a “Women Deliver” document asserts: “Malaysia’s health system today is designed to anticipate complications far in advance and quickly respond with skilled care… [It] has also focused on educating communities about the benefits of maternal and reproductive health care, in an effort to reduce social and cultural restrictions.”

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