At the close of this week’s UN Summit on progress toward achievement of the Millennium Development Goals, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced a US$40 billion investment in women and children’s health. This announcement came less than a week after Johnson & Johnson announced a commitment of US$200 million and CARE International pledged $1.8 billion to address the same issue.

Women’s health, particularly maternal mortality, has been the “underperformer” in poverty reduction efforts since the MDGs were announced in 2000, partly due to a lower level of investment compared with issues like food security and education. But investment shortage is far from the only reason for the “underperformance” of women’s health.

An issue brief just released by the OECD argues that the MDGs are ignoring the role of gender inequity in the perpetuation of poverty in general (see Figure 2, right). Poor women’s lack of access to employment, inability to own land and capital, and subjection to sexual violence and child marriage hold critical implications for their health and their ability to make healthy choices. And this is where the private sector has an important role to play.

There is another challenge: Most poor women in the developing world lack knowledge of basic general and reproductive health. At the same time, more of these women are entering the formal workplace through opportunities provided by globalization. As we’ve found through HERproject, BSR’s factory-based health education system, the workplace offers a perfect location for delivering critical health information and informing women on where they can access the services they need to take care of themselves and their children.

The low status of women must be addressed and basic health knowledge must be improved for real progress to be made on women’s health and poverty reduction as a whole. Businesses can play a key role in a turnaround effort to improve women's health, and they can do so in collaboration with governments and civil society, complementing the US$40 billion commitment made in New York this week.

For example, businesses can do a lot more to educate their female (and male) workers about their health in countries where such information is not provided by families, schools, or other traditional networks. Investments in women’s health, and other areas like education and economic empowerment, can pay off in the form of healthier, better-educated workers, new consumer markets, and improved operational environments.

We’ll be talking more about this issue and what types of investments make the most sense for companies to make. First, we're hosting an all-day workshop in London on October 5, and then at the BSR Conference 2010 in November, we’ll examine it again in a session entitled “The Gender Lens” on Wednesday November 3.