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In honor of International Women’s Day 2021
By: Tessa Roseboom, PhD
In every corner of the world, women are more often exposed to violence, do more unpaid work, and earn less money. Also, women have poorer access to food, healthcare, and education then men. Although the extent of inequality differs widely between countries, the disadvantaged position of women compared with men is universal. I will argue that this gender inequality does not “just” affect half of the world’s population, but it affects all of us. As well as all of our future generations.
Every human life is formed by the environment in which it grows up and develops. During the first nine months of life, when one single cell develops into a complete human being, the foundations for every human life are laid in a woman’s body. The mother’s health, her access to food, her freedom from violence, and stress all shape the unborn baby while it develops inside the mothers body. The building blocks for the organs and tissues come from the mothers nutrition and her health and stress levels shapes the structure and function of the child’s organs–including the brain–for life. Studies have shown that if women have better access to education, food, health, and safety, it improves not only to their own well-being but also to that of her children. In fact, in countries with greater gender equality, not only women, but also men and children are healthier and live longer.[3,4]
Currently, millions of children are failing to reach their developmental potential because they were exposed to poverty, violence, poor nutrition, and stress during critical periods of growth and development in the first nine months of their (intrauterine) life. This led their brains to develop sub-optimally, their bodies be more susceptible to chronic disease, and themselves less able to contribute to society. The levels of gender inequality and their effect on development and human capital of the next generation are substantial and the economic cost to society are steep.
With the early environment being of fundamental importance for achieving an individual’s full developmental potential, the right to health and the right for children to good early development are inextricably linked to equal rights for men and women. Such rights imply legal obligations of governments to ensure access to food, education, healthcare, and safety. Yet in more than 100 countries, laws prohibit women from working in certain jobs, 49 countries do not have laws against domestic violence, and in 8 countries (including the United States), women do not have the right to paid maternity leave. These legislations promote gender inequality and thereby ultimately prevent children from fulfilling their full developmental potential. In order to be more resilient to health crises in the future, we will have to build a world in which everyone has the opportunity to develop to their full potential. Women’s health and women’s rights are the foundation of this. There is a triple dividend of promoting gender equality: it will improve the current health and wellbeing of women and children, their future health as well as that of their future children. This is a promising way to improve the lives of generations to come.
Just like ‘Mother Earth’ will host all future generations, women’s wombs will host all future generations from their very beginning. Let’s make sure that future generations will have a fertile soil-base to grow on (with good nutrition to provide the building blocks, health to grow, and safety to develop), so that they can reach their full developmental potential. After all, gender equality is not only a fundamental human right, but also a necessary foundation for healthier future generations.
- Fleming TP, Watkins AJ, Velazquez MA, et al. Origins of lifetime health around the time of conception: causes and consequences. Lancet. 2018; 391(10132), 1842—1852.
- Roseboom TJ. Why achieving gender equality is of fundamental importance to improve the health and wellbeing of future generations: a DOHaD perspective. Journal of Developmental Origins 2020.
- Brinda EM, Rajkumar AP, Enemark U. Association between gender equality index and child mortality rates: a cross-national study of 138 countries. BMC Public Health 2015: 15:97.
- Gadoth A, Heymann J. Gender parity at scale: examining correlations of country-level female participation in education and work with measures of men’s and women’s survival. EClinicalMedicine 2020, march DOI:https://doi.org/10/1016/j.eclin.2020.100299.
- Machel G. Good early development — the right of every child. Lancet. 2017; 389, 13—14.
- Daelmans B, Darmstadt GL, Lombardi J, et al. Early childhood development: the foundation for sustainable development. Lancet 389, 9.
- Barker DJP, Barker ME, Fleming T, Lampl M. Support mothers to secure future public health. Nature. 2013; 504, 209—211.