As defined in the Cairo Agreement , Reproductive health entails much more than the mere absence of disease or infirmity, but relates to the state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing in all matters relating to the reproductive system, its functions and processes.
Also embedded in this definition are the rights to reproduce, the liberty to decide when to do so, the right to be informed and to have access to safe, effective and affordable family planning methods of one’s choice, as well as appropriate health care services that can enable women to go safely through pregnancy and childbirth.
Although governments across the MENA are increasingly adopting language which supports reproductive health, re-orienting policies and programs to meet their commitments to reproductive rights has been a major challenge. This is partly because customary sensitivities and taboos surrounding sexuality are still prevalent in the region, preventing governments from integrating reproductive health issues in their development programmes.
As a result, women’s access to reproductive health needs and services is still trifling.
A report published by Population Reference Bureau, disclosed that about half of 10 million women who give birth in the Middle East and North Africa experience some kind of complication every year. More than 1 million of these suffer injuries that lead to lifelong illnesses, whereas millions more experience other reproductive health problems, like Fistula, STDS and reproductive tract infections.
These Reproductive disabilities and illness not only negatively affect the health of women and girls, but also affect other aspects of their lives. They rob women and girls of their ability to stay in school and increase their chances of engaging in gainful employment, perpetuate gender inequalities and lower possibilities for women to break out of lowly social and economic statuses. These negative effects consequently spill into their families and communities, slowing social and economic development.
Decades of research have shown that improving women’s healthcare not only benefits women and their families, but the social and economic development of their nations. For example, women who have access to contraception are reported to have fewer children, report healthier outcomes, and attain higher levels of education hence increasing their opportunities to become wage earners, and boosting their family income levels.
Also, according to the United Nation’s Population Fund, countries which have invested in reproductive health services and increased women’s access to family planning have slower population growth and faster economic growth than countries that have not made similar investments. This simply implies that healthy women mean healthy economies, and, ignoring the reproductive health of women can result into weighty social-economic costs in the long run.
For that reason, if they are to leverage women’s full capacities in advancing social-economic development, it is imperative that MENA governments step up efforts to improve the reproductive health of women and girls, who also form the bulk of the region’s population. Some of many steps that can be adopted to achieve this include; increasing access to contraceptives and quality medical care for expectant mothers dwelling in rural areas, promoting women’s decision making, cracking down the whip on early marriages, as well as breaking the silence on sexuality and educating communities about reproductive health issues.
When women do better, we all do better.