From the mHealth Summit: Why Health Depends on Equality

Ed note.  The mHealth Summit celebrates innovations in mobile technology that are improving health outcomes. This year, for the first time, the mHealth Summit includes a dedicated global health track. UN Dispatch welcomes freelance journalist Lois Parshley, who is reporting from the convention floor.You can follow her on Twitter at @loisparshley.  — Mark 

(mHealth Summit, Washington DC) – Nafis Sadik, the Special Adviser to the U.N. Secretary General and former head of UNFPA, is 83 years old, although you wouldn’t know it by looking at her. She has shockingly blue eyes, and a husky voice that carries from a podium. At the 2012 mHealth Summit, Dr. Sadik strode out to center-stage in a red power suit as house music whoomped through the convention center’s subwoofers.

“Growing up in India,” she said, “mobile technology meant you had a car. When I was practicing” – she was an obstetrician in Pakistan before entering her career in policy – “few people had heard of mobile phones. Today, men still sit in cafes as they always did, with coffee in one hand, but instead of a water pipe in the other, now they have a phone.”

As a doctor, and as a woman, Sadik has witnessed a transformation in women’s healthcare. “We are all changing,” she said, “but in an Orwellian setting –- some are changing more than others.”  Sexual and reproductive services have long been targeted at women, but Dr. Sadik was quick to point out that traditional program designs don’t take into account women’s environment and living conditions. Breaking innovations in technology – the invention of smart phone apps, mobile microscopes, and easier communication with patients – can help doctors leapfrog traditional practices. But technology isn’t a catch-all solution. To be effective, these programs must also empower women. As Sadik explained, “Gender is not an age or minority issue. Women have a right to health, and education, and equitable development. By holding back women, you hold back the entire country.”

Thus far, there’s been little systematic understanding that equitable development is key to providing useful, sustainable healthcare. Any successful health care program must also take into consideration women’s economic security and their status in society as whole. In practice, this means simplifying services and making care accessible for women with low-access to services and busy daily lives, as well as empowering women with preventative education. No matter how fancy the mobile diagnostics, a woman in labor is still dependent on the quality of care she has immediate access to, and the breadth of that care is restricted by resources she can reach.

Nafis Sadik herself is no stranger to the role of advocating for women’s rights; in 1987, she became the first woman to head one of the United Nations’ major programs. “People say of young people, what they don’t know won’t harm them,” she said. “On the contrary, what girls don’t know will kill them.”