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Nalini Saligram Headshot
Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda Headshot

Non-Communicable Diseases: A Women's Health, Rights and Empowerment Issue

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Non-communicable diseases (NCDs), which include cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, lung disease, and mental health are one of the greatest health and development challenges of the century, responsible collectively for 2/3 of all deaths worldwide. Though all people the world over are susceptible to the threat of these chronic diseases, this is a women's health rights and empowerment issue because these diseases impact girls and women differently. At the same time, women are a crucial part of the solution to this crisis.

Arogya World, World YWCA and other organizations have joined forces to form the Women for a Healthy Future movement. We are mobilizing women and men from around the world to sign a petition demanding that world leaders reduce the vulnerability of women and children to NCDs.

As advocates for women's right to health and empowerment, we call on the world leaders during the forthcoming United Nations High Level Meeting on NCDs to consider the following critical factors related to women and NCDs:

1. NCDs have a direct impact on women's health
NCDs are the #1 killer of women. A staggering 50,000 women lose their lives to NCDs every single day. More than 1,000 women die from cardiovascular disease, one of the four main NCDs, every hour.

Women are uniquely affected by NCDs. New research published in The Lancet (Aug 2011) shows that for women, especially pregnant women, the harmful effects of smoking are even higher than for men. When it comes to coronary heart disease, smoking is 25% more dangerous for women.

In the developing world, the effect of NCDs on women is even more pronounced. Women comprise 60% of the world's poor, and poverty worsens chances of survival from NCDs. Women in developing countries also cook daily over open flames, and as a result acquire NCDs like Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. How can we allow 1.9 million people a year -- mostly women and children in developing countries -- to die because of everyday cooking?

2. NCDs impact women as caregivers
Women and girls play a critical role in caregiving. At YWCAs around the world, we have seen that when someone at home falls sick and needs extensive care (as is usually the case with chronic NCDs), it is the girls and young women who stay home to provide care. These women fall behind in school, miss work, or are forced to accept lower paying jobs because they need the flexibility to provide home care for a sick family member. Even if a woman doesn't suffer personally from an NCD, she is often drastically affected.

3. Women are disadvantaged with regard to prevention
While 80% of cardiovascular disease and diabetes and 40% of cancer are preventable through stopping tobacco use, increasing physical activity and improving diet, often these prevention efforts are not accessible to women. When women make up 2/3 of illiterate adults, they are at a great disadvantage to even learn about prevention. Moreover, social and cultural taboos sometimes restrict a woman's engagement in physical activity, because sport is considered 'unfeminine.' We believe that access to sports and physical exercise is not only a right in itself, but also a catalyst for development, leading to the empowerment of women and girls.

4. NCDs are an integral part of maternal and child health
Since low birth weight predisposes a baby to get diabetes and cardiovascular disease later in life, it is imperative that we educate pregnant women about good nutrition during pregnancy. In fact, some scholars believe the key to the entire NCD crisis lies in ensuring good health for adolescent girls, before they become pregnant, so that they can have safe and healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies of normal birth weight.

5. NCDs impact the next generation
While women are rightly concerned about the health of other women, they are fiercely concerned about the health and futures of their children. Children have a right to health. They deserve a dynamic future full of hope and happiness, a future where they can live their dreams and become productive world citizens. Aggressive marketing of tobacco products, junk foods and sugary drinks, and alcohol to children and young people is threatening that future. When the future of our children is at stake, women must take action.

The Promise of Women
It is sad that we still have to fight for the basic human right of women and children to good health, despite all the commitments to the world's women contained in the Beijing Platform for Action, CEDAW, and many other regional and national commitments. But, the truth is that on our watch, in our lifetimes, NCDs have exploded. We must do something about it. This is our responsibility.

Today, we have a chance to to take positive steps in securing women's health rights. Join us at Women for a Healthy Future. We are calling on all the people of the world, women and men to sign our petition and forward it to other personal and professional networks. On September 19 and 20, world leaders will convene at the United Nations for a summit on NCDs, the second ever UN summit on global health in history. We seek to gather 10,000 signatures to our petition, and we promise to bring your voices to those gathered at the United Nations to ensure that women's rights are included in the key decisions.

When the world takes care of women, women take care of the whole world.

Nyaradzayi Gumbonzvanda is General Secretary, World YWCA
Dr. Nalini Saligram is Founder and CEO of Arogya World

Neither author is involved with UN negotiations on the NCDs Outcomes Document.