The Ebola outbreak has served as a prolonged and revealing stress test, exposing countries' deep vulnerabilities well beyond the disease response. In particular, Ebola's relentless and disproportionate toll on girls and women has highlighted how precarious their health and rights are worldwide -- and how much work will remain even after Guinea and Sierra Leone join Liberia as Ebola-free.
Women have borne the brunt of Ebola. It's estimated that 56 women have been infected for every 44 men. But that's not all. Ebola-stricken nations have witnessed a dramatic rise in gender-based violence, with the number of rapes reportedly doubling in some regions. Reproductive health services have also suffered devastating setbacks. Fear of Ebola infection has deterred pregnant women from seeking care in health centres and health personnel from assisting deliveries, triggering an upsurge in women dying during childbirth.
These troubling trends are symptomatic of a bigger problem: gains for girls and women are often the hardest won and the most easily lost. In times of crisis, women's rights hang in the balance. For this to change - it can and must - governments must increase investment in girls and women, especially in their sexual and reproductive health and rights.
With Germany set to host the 41st annual G7 summit in June, seven leading nations are in a position to set the tone for international commitments to girls and women. This year will mark the start of a pivotal chapter for development as the UN finalizes ambitious goals this autumn to improve all lives and secure a healthy planet. The G7 summit will result in a declaration confirming the group's priorities. The world will be watching to see if, and how high, it raises the bar for women.
The G7's track record on female health and rights makes us hopeful. Last year, the UK held the first Girl Summit to end female genital mutilation and child marriage; in 2012, it hosted a groundbreaking global Family Planning Summit. The country also stands out as the first G7 country to sign international aid targets into national law.
Canada has also taken encouraging steps. Last year, it declared maternal, newborn and child health its top international priority. More important, Canada put muscle behind this commitment, pledging $3.5bn over the next five years to end preventable deaths of women and children.
While the G7 countries are doing more for girls and women, the challenges are growing tougher. According to the World Economic Forum, all of the world's regions - from North America to sub-Saharan Africa - have wider health gaps between women and men today than a decade ago.
These disturbing trends should do more than raise a few eyebrows. Time and again, data has shown that when women have equal rights and lead healthy lives, individuals, communities and nations thrive. If we fail to invest in women now, we risk losing more ground.
Future stresses and shocks - whether from epidemics like Ebola, conflicts or climate change - will continue to exert pressure on health systems, communities and national economies. When they do, girls and women's health and rights will be first to fall by the wayside if governments fail to sustain or increase investments. At the G7 summit in June, these countries have a chance to drive progress.
What would it look like for the G7 to prioritise girls and women at this year's summit?
First, words matter. The health and rights of girls and women are far too important to be listed 21st and 40th out of 43 priorities, as they were in last year's summit declaration. G7 countries must put women at the top of their agenda. They must also embrace gender equality and the full range of female health needs, from access to modern contraception to stronger health systems that ensure they can access quality health services and nutrition in times of crisis and calm alike.
More crucially, these goals need to be matched by equally bold financial commitments that will turn the ambitious sustainable development agenda into tangible progress for the health and rights of women.
The stakes are high. It is impossible to eradicate poverty, build resilient health systems and take care of the planet if women are not healthy, thriving members of society.
The world has long looked to the G7 for cues on which priorities really matter, and the answer is straightforward: healthy girls and women. These seven countries have a unique opportunity to step up their commitments and convince others to do the same. Advancing the health and rights of women is the right - and smart - thing to do for any nation hoping to remain or emerge as a leader on the global stage.
Follow Katja Iversen on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Katja_Iversen
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