Glean in: A new approach to the tough challenges facing women

It’s time to change the status of girls and women worldwide, says PATH’s Amie Batson – and innovation is our best ally.

Mothers wait in line to receive vaccines for their children

This week, I’ll be joining global health leaders, health care professionals, business and nonprofit leaders, and hundreds of other experts in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, for the Women Deliver global conference. For three intense days, we’ll strategize around the progress we’ve made toward improving the health and well-being of girls and women, what it will take to accelerate those gains, and the road ahead.

We’ve long recognized that helping women reach their full potential requires us to address their core needs, including family planning, safe pregnancy and delivery, adequate nutrition, and education. The work and investment of communities, global and local health groups, and many others has led to remarkable improvements.

Yet today, we’re still facing many of the same challenges we’ve seen for years. More than 222 million women in low-resource settings worldwide lack access to safe, accessible contraception. An estimated 287,000 women die each year during pregnancy, childbirth, or the weeks following birth. And in their own homes, women are commonly the last people to eat, even though their caloric and nutritional needs, especially when they’re pregnant or breastfeeding, are often the highest. Finally, even though we know that education increases a woman’s health and well-being, UNESCO estimates that only 55 percent of upper secondary-school-age girls in low-resource settings are attending school.

Clearly, it’s time to change the status of girls and women worldwide. As I head into Women Deliver, I feel more strongly than ever that innovation is our best ally.

This isn’t about eureka moments or even new inventions. Those are important, and investment and a culture of innovation pave the way. But true breakthroughs require a commitment to innovation as a practice: the daily vision to turn challenges over and over to glean new or overlooked approaches. It requires us to bring together the talent, resources, and ideas of experts from every sector and continent, as we’ll see this week at Women Deliver, and continue to draw on the talent and insight of women and communities themselves.

For example, because menstruation is a taboo subject in many communities, its impact on girls’ education in low-resource settings has often been overlooked. In fact, many young women are missing classes, or dropping out of school altogether, because they don’t have a good way to manage menstruation. New work to research and design workable options has the potential to dramatically improve girls’ attendance at school.

There are similar windows in family planning. We know that empowering women with a variety of options is crucial, and that a women’s condom could put lifesaving protection in their hands. Still, it took creativity, determination, and optimism to redevelop and market a truly attractive product. Today, the Woman’s Condom, designed with insights from hundreds of couples, is gaining popularity worldwide.

Improving women’s nutrition and health also requires this second look. In India, subtle attention to family and culture suggests that mothers-in-law control resources as the true heads-of-household, and they attend and guide delivery. Inviting them to maternal education events unlocks new doors, empowering them to provide better care for their daughters-in-law before, during, and after childbirth.

Often, the real innovation isn’t the product itself, but the insight and experience to make it widely available to—and welcome in—the communities it was designed to serve. Some of the most lifesaving products at work today, particularly in low-resource settings, involve the simplest ideas. In areas where many women give birth at home, this can be as basic as a bar of soap and piece of string, part of a “clean delivery” kit that gives women and birth attendants the tools they need to prevent life-threatening infections. The idea is simple, inexpensive, and smart, and the kits are helping women and newborns worldwide.

I see these transformative changes each day, and they reinforce my belief in the power of innovation. Done right, it’s an approach that makes good use of limited resources and respects the real needs of communities. And it demands that we demonstrate our hope and commitment by taking a second and third look at old challenges, gleaning fresh and overlooked approaches to help women and girls worldwide reach their full potential.

Join the conversation at the Women Deliver conference by following #wd2013 on Twitter from now until May 30. 

Amie Batson, MSW, MPH, is the chief strategy officer at PATH. She will be representing the organization at the Women Deliver conference as a panelist and speaker.

PATH is an international nonprofit organization that drives transformative innovation in global health. PATH takes an entrepreneurial approach to developing and delivering high-impact, low-cost solutions, from lifesaving vaccines, drugs, and devices to collaborative programs with communities. Through its work in more than 70 countries, PATH and its partners empower people to achieve their full potential.