Although women live longer than men, they spend 25 percent more of their lives in poor health, notes a new report entitled “Closing Women’s Health Gap: a $1 Trillion Opportunity to Improve Lives and Economy” released by the World Economic Forum as part of its “Women’s Health Initiative”. For far too long, it points out, society has overlooked women’s health needs and failed them in doing so. Despite living longer than men they suffer more, of which the individual and global socio-economic impacts are severe and the potential benefits of closing the women’s health gap vast, leading to better quality of life for billions of women and substantial economic gains. Assessing the disparity’s impact in economic terms, the report goes on to underscore that addressing it could potentially boost the global economy by at least $ 1 trillion annually by 2040. Investing in women’s health, therefore, is not only a matter of heath equity, but a chance to help women have expanded workforce participation and also to live healthier lives.

As important as these insights are from the wider global perspective, some of them lack relevance to the low and middle income countries, such as Pakistan where 40 percent of the people live under the poverty line and investments in healthcare remain insignificant. Acute malnutrition, under-nutrition and malnutrition causing stunting and wasting among children prevail in this country at emergency levels, further exacerbated by natural disasters, floods and droughts triggered by climate change. Then there is a traditional gender bias, which dictates that families’ boys and men get the best available food, with the result that girls and women are disproportionally malnourished, affecting them more than their male counterparts. Given the context, the Forum is exactly right in calling for a fundamental shift in mindset. Some of it is changing as more and more females are acquiring education and asserting their right to equality in home and at workplace, but at a very slow pace. Sadly, women’s uplift has not figured anywhere in our successive governments’ list of priorities. In fact, the unpleasant reality is that on health and education indicators, Pakistan has the lowest ranking in the entire South Asia region, and women occupy the lowest rung on the human development ladder.

Women’s health requires a concerted effort not only to bridge the gender gap but also to promote overall public healthcare and education. These being provincial subjects, governments in the provinces must adopt a positive approach and make sizeable investments in the two sectors. They may lack the capacity to do that on their own, though. The present report suggests new financing models for implementing more inclusive health policies, emphasising that success will hinge on increased public-private collaboration. That can happen only if the issue is adequately highlighted. Towards that end, civil society, the media, and public intellectuals can, and should, play a proactive role.