20/05/2012 18:43 BST | Updated 20/07/2012 06:12 BST

Hope for Women and Girls

As representatives of the World Health Organization Member States arrive in Geneva this week for the 65th World Health Assembly, I feel a cautious optimism about the future, and the future health of Africa.

With two female heads of state in Africa - Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and Joyce Banda in Malawi - women's health and gender equality are no longer marginalised, they have become central to a nation's potential for development and prosperity. National level attention to women's health and opportunity has become the standard against which our collective progress is judged. Presidents Sirleaf and Banda share a vision and passionate resolve to improve the lives of women in Africa - and like me they are founding members of the Aspen Institute's Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

At the World Health Assembly this week, where 193 countries will gather to tackle the planet's most pressing health challenges, I will present awards to four exceptional countries who have - against all odds - made enormous progress in making reproductive health services accessible to all of their citizens. The Aspen Institute's Global Leader's Council for Reproductive Health Resolve Award will be awarded to Malawi, Ethiopia, Rwanda and Nepal for their extraordinary efforts to increase access to family planning services, reduce maternal mortality and build health care systems that reach all their citizens.

Next week In Geneva, the Director General of the WHO, Dr. Margaret Chan, will be reelected. Dr. Chan began her term with a stirring inaugural speech where she proclaimed, "I want my leadership to be judged by the impact of our work on the health of two populations: women and the people of Africa."

Dr. Chan's emphasis on women's health and the health of Africa is well placed. Africa's women and girls bear a disproportionate burden of preventable death and disease. Across the continent, women and children die each day from preventable illnesses - measles, malaria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and pregnancy-related complications. The numbers are staggering; 216 million people were afflicted by malaria in 2010 alone and in that same year, 215 million women were identified as having an unmet need for family planning.

This tragic and excessive loss of life is quite preventable, and that is why I am glad to see signs of progress and renewed commitment to delivering on the promise of health for all. Political leaders now know that economic and sustainable development is intimately tied to the health of a nation's population. Countries like Nigeria, South Africa, Mozambique, Malawi and Ethiopia are increasing their support for health through health worker task shifting, increased national budgets for health and greater systems of accountability. Two years ago, the African Union declared a "Women's Decade" and I believe that universal access to reproductive health is just one of the ways we can build gender equality. Women must have the right to choose when and where to have children, and have access to skilled care before, during and after childbirth.

The Resolve Award winners are exceptional - Nepal has increased births in hospital from 18 % to 33 %, and Malawi has increased use of modern contraceptives dramatically from 7 % in 1992 to 47 % in 2010. Rwanda's Investment in health for all - especially women and children - is cited as a cornerstone of that country's remarkable progress towards democracy and economic growth.

Rwanda has quadrupled its contractive prevalence rate from 10% in 2005 to 45 % in 2010. Ethiopia pioneered a powerful community based health worker system, built around young women serving as health extension workers in rural and remote health clinics where sexual and reproductive health are central to the basic health care package available. Ethiopia has doubled its use of contraceptives from 15% to 29%.

These are investments beyond health - they help keep young women in school, they reduce child marriage, they help to reduce unsustainable population pressures on strained natural resources, and they lead to enhanced economic productivity and development.

The goal of universal access to family planning information, supplies and services is not new. Despite the decades'-long recognition of the link between population and natural resources, and population and security and economic development, until recently international financial support for family planning has lagged far behind other global health funding. Perhaps more importantly, discussion of family planning has become a third rail issue complicated by politics and ideology.

That's why Melinda Gates' public support for family planning is a game-changer. In April, Melinda Gates announced that she would make family planning her signature issue. Her goal is to get this back on the global agenda. When Melinda Gates calls, people respond, and already there are exciting signs of progress. In partnership with the Gates Foundation, USAID, DFID and other donors are convening a family planning summit in London in July which will catalyse the investments and policy changes needed to meet the global unmet need for family planning.

So 2012 may be the year when 'the elephant in the room'--population and women's reproductive health--is talked about once again, and we move beyond ideological posturing to truly support a new future for Africa.