International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium makes global health discourse a reality

image1The first International Women’s Day was held on March 8, 1911, and the day continues to be celebrated today, to call for greater equality and recognize the achievements of women. On March 6, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted the International Women’s Day Global Health Symposium at the Standard Hotel in Chicago to address women’s health around the world. Twelve Northwestern University Global Health Studies students attended the conference, along with a few faculty members.

“Engaging with global health discourse in the classroom is one thing, but to see the people who are actually making change happen speak about it makes that discourse a reality,” said Abhi Veerina, a junior Global Health Studies minor who attended the conference.

If you were unable to make it to the conference, but are interested to know what was said, here are the main takeaways from three key talks.

Health Food for a Healthy World

The panelists for this keynote, which took place over breakfast, were Kate Maehr, executive director and CEO of the Greater Chicago Food Depository, and Roger Thurow, a senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and author of the One Book One Northwestern 2013-2014 choice, “The Last Hunger Season.” Thurow stressed the importance of the first 1,000 days on tackling hunger and the stunting of children around the globe. The first 1,000 days, from a mother’s pregnancy to the child’s second birthday, can help determine the course of their future, profoundly impacting the child’s ability to grow, learn, and rise out of poverty. This is important to individuals and societies as well, as Thurow explained the opportunity costs that result from stunted children that could have otherwise made large societal impacts.

In the panel, Maehr explained how food deserts exist all across the globe, though the causes differ by region. In some places of the world, hunger is a result of war, weather, and geography. Here in Cook County, the issue is poverty. More than one million people live at or below the poverty level, which for a family of four is less than $23,000 yearly income. Additionally, she discussed the prevalence of hunger in all parts of our country, emphasizing that it is not only a rural issue.

“Hunger is alive and strong in every one of Illinois’ counties,” Maehr said.

The main takeaway was that nutrition is the bedrock issue for many societies today. In order for education or health initiatives to succeed, nutrition must first be addressed. The Greater Chicago Food Depository acknowledges this and works to combat issues of hunger and malnutrition in our community.

“These are not problems that we have to tolerate,” Thurow said.

Global Mental Health

The next panel addressed global mental health, with Scott Portman, the Director of Special Projects at Heartland Alliance International, and Karlee Silver, the Vice President of Targeted Challenges at Grand Challenges Canada, as the two panelists.

Silver discussed the current issues regarding mental health around the world, with 90% of people without access to proper care and a widespread stigmatization that prevents conversations and limits progression of treatment. She is working on an initiative in Canada called Saving Brains, that aims to “develop sustainable ways to promote and nurture healthy child and brain development in the first 1,000 days” to impact low-resource areas and foster human capital to solve the challenges that exist in these communities.

To improve care in the U.S., Portman suggested U.S. development agencies be created with a specific focus on mental health and try to integrate mental health into policies. He believes the U.S. should enact programs like Saving Brains in Canada to promote healthy minds. On an individual level, Silver urged audience members to have more conversations about mental health in every day life, or to just talk to each other in general and reduce the loneliness that many feel around the world.

Smart Economics: Women’s Reproductive Health

Purnima Mane, the President and CEO of Pathfinder International, an organization that focuses on family planning and reproductive health in developing countries, opened this talk with a discussion of women’s reproductive health and related statistics. Pathfinder International’s efforts in India attempted to change the pattern of young girls getting married, pregnant, and dropping out of school. From their efforts, they found a 13% increase in use of contraception to delay the first pregnancy and a 19% increase in contraception to space pregnancies. Mane emphasized that change is possible and more efforts should be made to promote reproductive health.

Priya Agrawal, the Executive Director of Merck for Mothers and Jeni Klugman, a fellow in the Women and Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, spoke next. Klugman explained how restrictions on the agency of women are holding back progress around the globe. For example, she described restrictions on abortion do not prevent abortions from occurring, but instead have them done in unsafe manners. In her opinion, reproductive health is central to gender equality.

Agrawal described why investing in women is a smart economic decision. Providing reproductive health services and contraception to all women who want them would cost $3.6 billion dollars a year, but would generate annual benefits of $432 billion. In other words, each dollar invested in women’s health generates $120 in benefits. In Agrawal’s words, healthy women lead to healthy families, communities, and economies, and “quite frankly, that’s really good for business.”


If you are interested in viewing the full panels, you can watch the tapings at

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