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Jill Sheffield Headshot

International Women's Day: Catalyst for a Healthier Future

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There are times in the history of the world when the actions of people with foresight and wisdom have averted crises on a mass scale. We are hopeful that this will be another of those times, and that the 100th observance of International Women's Day on March 8 will be the catalyst.

The lives of far too many people around the world are threatened by non-communicable diseases (NCDs) including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and chronic respiratory ailments. More than sixty percent of us in countries rich and poor will die from these diseases. The World Economic Forum's 2010 Global Risks Report identifies NCDs as one of the major risks to businesses and economies, and rates it a costly global risk comparable to that of the financial crisis. This year, 10 years after the 2001 Summit on HIV/AIDs, the UN is holding a summit in September 2011 to evaluate the global impact of these chronic diseases. In the months leading up to the summit, we in civil society have an unprecedented opportunity to help rally the world in the fight against NCDs.

The sad truth is that these chronic diseases are mostly preventable. Eating more nutritious foods, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake and increasing exercise will go a long way toward improving and lengthening lives.

So how does this tie in with International Women's Day? While NCDs are not solely a women's issue, they definitely affect the lives of women to an enormous extent. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the leading causes of deaths in women are heart disease, stroke and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Diabetes and hypertension are not far behind. And unfortunately, according to the WHO, each day 1000 women die of preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

Frequently, because women tend to live longer than men, we are in poor health with chronic diseases for a longer period of time -- affecting our families, our communities and our earning potential. And when a family member lingers at home with a chronic condition, it is generally a girl or woman who devotes her days to his or her care.

We are also alarmed by the impact of these chronic diseases on women who are in their reproductive years. At a time when maternal mortality statistics are finally decreasing, diabetes and other NCDs are poised to increase key risk factors for women of childbearing age.

As we celebrate International Women's Day, we hope that the word "prevention" will be on everyone's minds. Prevention is the key, particularly when it comes to women's health. Adequate prenatal care can ensure healthier outcomes for women and babies; access to family planning can prevent unintended pregnancies and abortions; and lifestyle choices can ensure longer, more productive lives. In most cultures, women are the ones who have primary responsibility for decisions related to food and activity for their families. These are the very decisions that can have the greatest impact on reducing life-threatening non-communicable diseases.

This request is urgent: It is estimated that some 35 million people die from chronic conditions each year -- 80% of them in developing countries -- and the numbers are rising alarmingly. Deaths from diabetes are estimated to increase by fully two-thirds by 2030. And who amongst us can say that our lives have not been touched by cancer? Deaths worldwide from cancer are projected to continue rising, with an estimated 12 million deaths in 2030.

We urge governments and policy makers to address the health of women in a comprehensive manner, through integrated health approaches that include reducing maternal mortality, tackling infectious diseases, addressing NCDs, and by improving treatment and care and actively encouraging prevention. In order to improve the health of families and communities, we must begin with women.Let's not forget: Women are the economic drivers of development. The healthier the women, the healthier the nation.

Women are a key part of the solution to one of the world's biggest global threats -- the NCD crisis. So we are appealing to women from Nairobi to New Delhi to New York to do whatever is within their own power to steer their families toward healthier living. We can start small, by safeguarding the health of our own families. Whether we live in poverty or relative wealth, women can make the best choices of what our families eat and how we spend our leisure time. Just as we have ensured that maternal and infant mortality have greatly decreased, so can we wage battle against the largest global killers of women. If governments and women make prevention a top priority, International Women's Day 2011 will be a celebration of a healthier future for us all.