As world leaders make their way to New York this month to attend the United Nations General Assembly, we call on them to renew their commitments to combating non-communicable diseases (NCDs). Tackling NCDs with a woman-centered focus is a critical step towards reaching all development goals.
When women survive, their families, communities and nations thrive. Unfortunately, each year, millions of women die from completely preventable causes. NCDs (including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and chronic respiratory illness) are the No. 1 killer of women, killing 50,000 women every day. Every two minutes a woman dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and more than 1,000 women die from cardiovascular disease every hour. These are not just statistics. Women's suffering is unacceptable in the 21st century, and the world has too much to lose when we allow women to die from almost entirely preventable causes.
The solution to curbing NCDs and maternal mortality ultimately rests in improving women's access to strong and capable health systems. We know that in too many countries, women get the least access to healthcare. Governments and policy makers must address women's health needs through integrated approaches that include reducing maternal mortality, improving access to family planning, tackling infectious diseases, and addressing NCDs. Health systems must be equipped to prevent, diagnose and treat through an integrated approach, particularly given that NCDs increasingly threaten the same women that have been the targets of reproductive health and maternal health efforts over the past decades. We need health systems to keep pace with all women's health needs, from childhood through old age.
Countries must also get serious about NCDs and maternal mortality. Governments can only truly understand the magnitude of the problem when they have sufficient and reliable data on how women in their country prepare for pregnancy and childbirth and deal with traditional women's health issues, and also with emerging women's health issues like NCDs. Women count, and their lives must be counted.
NCDs are integral to maternal health in other ways. There is increasing evidence that low birth weight leads to diabetes and heart disease later in life. So governments and donor agencies can make an important investment in educating women about having healthy pregnancies and avoiding low birth weight babies. This will not only save women's lives during childbirth but also help set their children up for a healthy future, with less risk for chronic disease.
The good news is that we know what to do -- stopping tobacco use, increasing physical activity and eating a healthy diet can prevent 80 percent of heart disease and diabetes cases, and 40 percent of cancers. Teaching women about NCD prevention by promoting healthy lifestyles will result in women not only changing their own lives, but also steer their families and entire communities towards healthy living. Educated and empowered women can work to build a healthier, more sustainable world and lift families out of poverty.
It's also important to look at new solutions and technologies. Clean cookstoves, which are efficient stoves that feature chimneys to direct fumes out of the home, are a simple and smart tool to fight NCDs. In many parts of the world, women spend three to seven hours a day preparing food, often in front of an open fire with cheap firewood as fuel, with babies strapped to their backs, breathing indoor smoke. Clean cookstoves could prevent up to 2 million deaths -- of women and children -- from conditions caused by cookstove smoke each year.
There is another reason why it is smart to educate women about their health and reducing NCDs: They will ensure that the next generation is cared for. Empowered women will ask world leaders to reduce the marketing of calorie-dense junk foods, tobacco and alcohol to children and adolescents. They will demand that tobacco products are taxed and sugary soft drinks banned in schools. They will make healthier nutrition choices during their pregnancies and afterward. The status quo is not OK. The future of our children -- and that of the children of the future -- is at stake.
As gatekeepers of the food families eat and the physical activities they engage in, women deserve an important seat at the table. In the spirit of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's "Every Woman, Every Child" initiative, which aims to save the lives of 16 million women and children by 2015, we ask for a focus on women as countries build NCD action plans. We must seize this unprecedented global movement to improve policy and services on the ground for the most vulnerable women and children. Because when you take care of women, women take care of their children and indeed the whole world.
Jill Sheffield is the president of Women Deliver and Nalini Saligram is the founder of Arogya World.
This article is one of several being published to mark the first anniversary of the 2011 United Nations High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases on Sept. 19. The series is coordinated by Arogya World in partnership with the Young Professionals Chronic Disease Network and will be housed at www.arogyaworld.org.
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