By Emma Batha
COPENHAGEN (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Countries which fail to invest in young women's health will be left behind because the underdeveloped brains of their children will not be equipped to compete in an increasingly complex, digital world, the head of the World Bank said on Wednesday.
Jim Yong Kim said childhood stunting, which impairs cognitive ability, was a "great unrecognized disaster happening in the world right now".
He said when finance ministers approach the World Bank for loans they say they are not going to use the money for women and children, but for hard infrastructure like roads and energy.
"What we are now telling them is look to the future ... it is digital, digital, digital. The most important infrastructure you can invest in could be gray matter infrastructure ... and it starts with a healthy girl," Kim told Women Deliver, a major women's health and rights conference.
He said a quarter of children worldwide were stunted, 32 percent in India and 45 percent in Pakistan.
Health experts say the first 1,000 days of a baby's life from conception are critical for physical and mental development.
Women who delay pregnancy, space their births and receive proper nutrition and healthcare before, during and after pregnancy are more likely to have healthier, stronger children.
Kim said brain scans showed that young children who don't have sufficient nutrition or stimulation in their early years have fewer neural connections which impacts their cognitive potential.
"For every country in the world looking at a future that's going to ... require huge amounts of digital competence we are now saying to these governments how are you going to walk into the future with 45 percent stunting.
"How are you going to compete in the future when 45 percent ... of your future workers actually don't have as many neurone connections as the others do."
Kim said countries must ensure that girls do not have babies too young and that expectant mothers have access to healthcare.
"We have to take care of those children ... in the first five years as if they are the most precious infrastructure you could ever buy," he said to applause.
"GIVE THE MONEY TO WOMEN"
Kim said although maternal mortality rates had come down they were still far too high - one in 26 women in sub-Saharan Africa is at risk of dying during childbirth over her lifetime. In Europe it is one in 9,400.
"No woman should die in childbirth and we still have a huge problem. We're making progress but not enough," he added.
He said investing in women's health, education and economic empowerment was crucial for ending global poverty and the World Bank would be making special investments to address the high numbers of girls dropping out in secondary school.
Kim said conditional cash transfers were a highly effective way for reducing poverty, but they were far more effective if the money was given to women rather than men.
"We've learnt over and over again with these programs that if you give it to the men the outcomes are much worse than if you give it to the women ... Let me say, anyone wanting to try this, give it to the women."
Increasing the availability of childcare and women's access to bank accounts and technology, were also critical, the conference heard.
Some 5,500 delegates from over 160 countries are attending Women Deliver in Copenhagen which ends on Thursday.
(Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit news.trust.org to see more stories.)