Walking through the halls of the imposing Walter E. Washington Convention Center in D.C., you can feel that the Women Deliver conference is the largest gathering on women’s issues in more than a decade. There is a palpable excitement and enthusiasm among the thousands of attendees milling around between sessions, connecting and sharing experiences, which is only matched by the intense engagement and intellectual energy felt during the panels, plenaries and discussions.

The second day of Women Deliver was dedicated to examining the role of technology as a social catalyst, specifically the ways in which technology can enhance women’s lives and their health. The day kicked-off with Hans Rosling, of Gapminder fame, whose lively and entertaining presentation about the connection between decreasing maternal mortality and fertility rates and increasing GDP was a hit among the sleepy-eyed delegates in attendance. Through a riveting visual data representation, Rosling showed how scientific progress and the advent of new technologies in reproductive health contributed significantly to reducing maternal mortality and decreasing unsustainable fertility rates. He also urged the crowd to “put forward their successes as a motivation for activism”, a call which resonates strongly here at Women Deliver.

One of the messages that keeps coming up is that there are 200 million women across the world who do not have access to contraception, and are thus unable to control their fertility. We know that breakthroughs in contraceptive techniques have helped improve and save women’s lives, not just in the developing world but in the developed world as well. The potential benefits of increasing access to and affordability of contraception for women in the developing world are enormous, and speakers at Women Deliver discussed the many technological, scientific and practical innovations to achieve just this that are currently in the pipeline.

Researchers and advocates spoke of the tantalizing innovations that are slated to fundamentally transform global maternal health. In the same way that the Pill was a revolutionary technology 50 years ago, scientists are working hard to develop innovations with a comparable impact. As critical as scientific breakthroughs and innovations in technology are, though, they are not a panacea. Social, cultural, political or religious constraints can be insurmountable barriers to access for women across the world.

Acknowledging this, many of the speakers presenting their technological innovations also discussed innovations in packaging, delivery, distribution and other ancillary issues. For instance, dual purpose contraceptives which can incentivize users are one of the technologies that were discussed by panelists at yesterday’s press conference: vaginal rings that stop the multiplication of diseased cells in women’s breasts, or male contraceptives that can prevent baldness. Others talked about integrating interventions, such as giving a free long-lasting insecticide treated bednet to women coming for a breast examination or an HIV screening.

Issues of stigma, discrimination and general lack of access continue to cloud over the potential of technology to improve women’s lives. In addition to new science and innovative thinking, women’s health advocates will have to continue to contend with the powerful forces which seek to bar women’s access to these life-saving technologies.

A key part of providing 200 million women with contraception and truly making these technologies catalysts for social change will be to address the social, political and cultural hurdles which restrict women’s access to health care.

 

UN Dispatch spoke with Nafis Sadik, Special Advisor to the UN Secretary-General on HIV/AIDS in Asia and the Pacific about how social, cultural and political constraints can hinder women’s access to contraceptive technology:

 

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