Electing Women to Combat Child Mortality?

The global development community has long asked what can be done to improve child health globally.  Canadian children are fortunate, for the most part, to avoid many of the devastating effects of poverty and inequality on their health and survival.  Children in many other parts of the world are not so lucky.  It is not surprising, then, that the recent report of the High-Level Panel on the Post-2015 Development Agenda would enumerate several potential objectives that target child mortality as a key development issue going forward.

What are the possible solutions to the plague of child mortality?  With any such complex issue, the answers are equally complex.  There is no single cause of mortality, and nor should we expect there to be a single solution.  This is not to say that certain factors do not contribute to infant and child mortality more than others.  Indeed, a study highlighted recently in this blog finds that a large share of child mortality can be linked to issues of malnutrition.  Governments worldwide are working to focus on the nutrition issue, with the G8 placing significant attention on the subject at its recent pre-summit Nutrition for Growth meetings this past weekend.  In this context, Canada has been recognized as a leading donor in the fight against malnutrition.

Sadly, even with concerted effort on malnutrition, infant and child mortality will not be eliminated.  We must collectively address other means of improving child health.  What of other solutions to the scourge of child mortality?  Efforts like Grand Challenges Canada’s Saving Lives at Birth initiative have been lauded for sparking technical and policy-based innovation on this issue.

One interesting connection that merits more attention is the link between women’s position in society and child health. The argument is that the better educated and more empowered women are, the more their children, and therefore society will benefit.  The High-Level Panel took note of this in their report too, making the empowerment of women and girls the second of their proposed illustrative goals and targets for the post-2015 era.  Indeed, one of their targets is to eliminate discrimination against women in “political, economic, and public life” (p. 30):

We must work to fulfill the promise of women’s equal access to, and full participation in, decision-making, and end discrimination on every front. This must happen in governments, companies and in civil society. In countries where women’s interests are strongly represented, laws have been passed to secure land rights, tackle violence against women and improve health care and employment. Yet women currently occupy less than 20 percent of parliamentary seats worldwide.

The message is simple. Women who are safe, healthy, educated, and fully empowered to realize their potential transform their families, their communities, their economies and their societies. We must create the conditions so they can do so. (p.35)

Viewing women’s political power as not just a measure of equality, but a tool to achieve better development outcomes, the argument is as follows. If more women were in government our societies would be: more peaceful; less corrupt; better run; healthier; more just.  These are but a few of the reasons offered to support a push towards gender equality in politics in countries around the world. This argument rests on a widely held notion that women – despite their vast diversity as a group – share some inherent preferences and capacity for more altruistic, caring, and positive leadership.

In this vein, the United Nations has championed the idea that achieving a ‘critical mass’ of women in political power will yield more beneficial decisions.  This approach instrumentalizes women’s political power beyond simply a preference for equality.  The expectation is that more women in positions of power will be better for the development of a society.  Following the logic of this argument and returning to the issue of child mortality, we might expect that states with more women in power would experience improved child health.

It was exactly this relationship that my co-authors, Kathleen Fallon and Giovani Burgos, and I addressed in a study published in the journal Social Forces late in 2012:  Is a critical mass of women in political power associated with improved child health in developing countries?

We used statistical analysis to examine 102 developing countries over the period from 1980 through 2005 and found that countries which exceeded a 20% threshold of women’s representation in parliaments had higher levels of immunization and increased rates of infant and child survival five years later than those countries with no women represented in parliaments.  Likewise, we found that it was not necessary to have achieved critical mass, and that incremental increases in women’s representation were also associated with improved health and survival measures.  More interestingly, when we accounted for the wealth of nations, our results suggested that the impact of women’s political power was greatest in the poorest countries.  As countries increased their national income, the effects of women’s political power on child health were reduced.

Our study highlights the collateral benefits of encouraging women’s political power and participation.  Beyond simply promoting women’s increased political power for the sake of gender equality (a laudable goal in its own right), we found that the UN is correct in its push to use increased women’s empowerment as a tool for better development.

It is encouraging to see this relationship acknowledged as a central piece of the HLP’s post-2015 illustrative goals and targets.  Going forward, complex challenges like child health and mortality will undoubtedly be tackled through concerted global efforts around malnutrition and health systems innovations, but it is important that the global community think more broadly about child health and consider the influence of other factors like women’s empowerment as an additional avenue to improving child health.  Combatting child mortality by electing more women may not appear as simple as other health and nutrition interventions, but the UN is definitely onto something.

What can we look forward to in terms of promoting women’s political representation in developing countries? More electoral quotas for women’s representation? Greater acceptance of women in political leadership? Campaigns to promote awareness of the developmental benefits of women in politics? All of these are possibilities, especially given that some of the countries with the highest levels of women’s parliamentary representation currently are from the Global South.  Electing more women will not solve child mortality on its own, but as part of a broader development agenda the evidence suggests it will definitely help.

This post originally appeared on the Ottawa Citizen’s Aid & Development blog on 2013/06/11.