Opinion: The power of sexual and reproductive health and rights in achieving health for all

Burkina Faso is standing by the side of its women and girls with plans to offer free primary health care to all mothers and children under 5, including family planning. This national effort is paving the way for the improved sexual and reproductive health and rights of its population. Photo by: Pathfinder

Investing in the power and potential of women and girls and their sexual and reproductive health and rights is the only way to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. However, most of the 4.3 billion people of reproductive age worldwide will have inadequate access to SRH services over the course of their lives. To achieve the SDGs, particularly health for all, we must ensure girls, women, and their communities have access to quality SRH services, and they must hold their social, community, and health systems accountable for meeting their needs.

At Pathfinder, we believe that SRH and rights of women and girls depend on the quality of the services they are offered. A whole-of-system approach to sexual and reproductive health, or SRH, and rights is required to unleash the power of women and girls and enable them to transform their lives and change the world.

A whole-of-systems approach engages entire communities to ensure women and girls can exercise their right to high-quality SRH services. Pathfinder’s 60 years working in the field of SRH and rights has shown us that when women and girls have their communities by their side — partners, parents, relatives, elders, and religious, economic, and political leaders — they can better advocate for their right to high-quality SRH services, pursue education, delay marriage, build a livelihood, and have the right information to make their own contraceptive choices.

In addition to their local communities, women and girls need the global community of policymakers, private-sector entities, program implementers, and advocates #ByHerSide.

“The next 12 months leading up to the high-level meeting on universal health coverage represent an opportunity to ensure universal sexual and reproductive health is part of a renewed commitment to primary health care and the movement toward health for all.”

— Lois Quam, president and CEO, Pathfinder International

What does this mean in practice?

This means developing national strategies to ensure SRH interventions are part of the primary health care system’s essential health benefits package and successfully integrated into performance-based financing systems. According to the World Health Organization, 90 percent of a person's health needs across their lifetime can be covered by primary health care.

From the supply side, this includes an emphasis on task sharing between clinic and community health workers to improve access to a mix of contraceptive methods, especially in rural areas. From the demand side, it requires a broad range of champions — including women and girls, men and boys, adolescents, families, and communities — who are fully equipped to advocate for SRH within universal health coverage and are simultaneously capable of holding governments accountable for its delivery.

Being #ByHerSide also means supporting country-led solutions that champion women and girls.

Countries leading the way

I am pleased that Burkina Faso has a vision to build a national health system that values prevention and makes the community approach to primary health care the bedrock of Burkina's march toward health for all. This includes extending free health care and services to the community level for children under 5 and their mothers, including family planning.

Another leader is Ethiopia. Through its Family Planning 2020 commitment, the Ethiopian government is committed to a progressive increase of financing to family planning services and 100 percent availability of family planning commodities at the primary health care level. To share learnings as implementation occurs, Burkina and Ethiopia have established a south-to-south collaboration; Pathfinder and other partners are helping to facilitate this partnership.

#ByHerSide

When a woman or girl has her community by her side, she has a brighter future. She can better advocate for her right to pursue an education, build a livelihood, and decide whether and when she wants to marry or have children. The #ByHerSide campaign advances the comprehensive implementation of sexual and reproductive health and rights. Only when we achieve health for all can we say the world is truly #ByHerSide.

The initiative started with an exchange visit of Pathfinder’s Burkina team to Ethiopia to learn about Ethiopia’s community-based implementation. The trip ended with a concrete plan — Ethiopia committed to providing its technical expertise for frontlines planning and implementation to Burkina Faso. I believe this model clearly shows that south-to-south collaboration is sustainable when you have a process for knowledge transfer. This process starts with innovation and then, through adoption and adaptation, leads to replication and institutionalization.

Now is the time to leverage our strong and enduring relationships with governments, champions, and partners around the globe to expand access to quality SRH services and transform communities. We can do this by working at the national level to ensure that the right policies and financial resources are in place, and then alongside subnational health systems to identify and solve barriers to implementation of those national policies. We should provide technical assistance and facilitate catalytic partnerships to advance technology and scale-up best practices that will further establish the credibility and value of universal health coverage.

The next 12 months leading up to the high-level meeting on universal health coverage represent an opportunity to ensure universal SRH is part of a renewed commitment to primary health care and the movement toward health for all. SRH needs to be part of the conversation around financing, health workforce, and the essential package of health services. Without it, we’re setting up universal health coverage for limited impact. Ensuring full access to quality SRH services underpins the success of the SDGs, including universal health coverage and other goals that relate to overall health and well-being.

Globally, we can make our case through storytelling, testimonials, and data for continued investment in a comprehensive approach to SRH and rights as central to achieving health for all and gender equality.

I encourage the global community to coalesce around a common advocacy agenda that builds on the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission report and advances the comprehensive implementation of SRH and rights. Only then will we achieve health for all. Only then will we truly be #ByHerSide.

Click here to find out more about #ByHerSide and use the hashtag to join the conversation.

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About the author

  • Lois%2520quam

    Lois Quam

    Named three times to Fortune’s list of the most influential women leaders in business, Lois Quam joined Pathfinder in 2017 as CEO. She brings a lifelong passion for women’s empowerment and lessons learned as a senior leader in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors. Throughout her career, she has applied her strategic and operating experience to drive business revenue and earnings growth and tackle public policy issues.