As a women-owned company, the fifth UN Sustainable Development Goal – Gender Equality – is close to Shift’s heart. Centuries of institutionalised and cultural inequality, which persists in many countries around the world to this day, has had consequences that affect the lives of millions of women.

The UN goal is multifaceted, elaborating on the important issues that must be confronted and resolved for true gender equality to be achieved. It includes ending discrimination, all forms of violence, exploitation, and ensuring equal opportunities, reproductive rights, access to healthcare and equal rights to economic resources, including property ownership and financial services. It is essential that business takes heed and considers how their value chain can become a part of the solution. Research has shown repeatedly that empowering women has a ripple effect that builds their entire community, not only socially but as consumers as well.

One of the speakers at our 2017 Africa Shared Value Summit, social entrepreneur Dr Sara Saeed, is the founder and CEO of Sehat Kahani. In Pakistan, healthcare access is often extremely limited, especially in rural areas – and even more for women. In Pakistan, women’s life expectancy is 67, as compared to 73 in Bangladesh and 78 in Thailand. In addition, female doctors find it difficult to return to practice after having children, as culturally it is considered a woman’s role to stay home and look after her children. This results in skilled women being frozen out of the workplace, unable to fill Pakistan’s desperate need for qualified healthcare professionals. In fact, nearly 50% of the female workforce does not pursue a medical career after graduation.

Sehat Kahani was born to solve this social need, aiming to provide a basic health unit to underprivileged areas across Pakistan. Dr Saeed created a telehealth platform that connected the women who needed medical care with women doctors who were unable to provide it through more conventional channels. This uses technology to connect women doctors, no matter where they may be, with underserved women and their families. It also trains and empowers nurses and community workers to assist the doctors with physical procedures and provide basic healthcare services.

Another start-up that addresses a gender equality issue is lingerie brand Naja, who have reconceived their product to better serve the market. Starting from the premise that women’s underwear should be designed for women, not to appeal to the objectifying male gaze, their underwear features empowering messages on the inside meant for the woman wearing it and not the person looking at her. They have also recently released a nude underwear collection that comes in a range of shades to cater for different skin tones. Their Shared Value business model has women empowerment at its heart, as they train single mothers in the poorest areas of the world to sew through their Underwear for Hope programme, and employ them to create the lingerie wash bag that comes with every item they sell to give them a steady source of income.

These are only a few of the case studies of businesses leveraging their value chain in order to strive for gender equality and make a profit at the same time. Shared Value is already affecting the lives of thousands of women around the world, but it is not enough. Every business should take the time this Women’s Month to reassess its own ability to incorporate this UN Sustainable Development goal into its operations and strategy in a holistic and sustainable way that has a long-term benefit to the bottom line.