On this International Women's Day, we imagine a world where every woman and girl has access to quality and affordable health care, a world in which women and girls can freely exercise their sexual and reproductive health rights, and one where all women and girls are treated and respected as equals.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day is the “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”; and today is a good day for each and every one of us to speak-up for gender equality and women’s rights.
At the World Health Organization, we’re speaking up for women and girls’ right to health. When women and girls are able to stay in school longer, plan or prevent pregnancies and access health services without discrimination, they can improve their economic opportunities, and ultimately transform their futures.
But, we also must do more than speak. We must act.
Nothing will help women and girls more than ensuring that everyone, everywhere, can benefit from quality health services when and where they need them, without fear of falling into poverty when using them.
Today, at least half of the world’s people are lack access to essential health services – such as antenatal care throughout pregnancy, or immunizations to prevent maternal and neonatal tetanus or HPV – because they are not available or are financially out of reach. A disproportionate number of these people are women and girls.
Almost 100 million people are also being pushed into extreme poverty – living on less than $1.90 per day – because they have to pay for health services out of their own pockets. This is unacceptable. A woman should not have to choose whether to send her child to school, purchase food or pay for a health visit.
Universal health coverage – WHO’s top priority – means that health packages designed for women and adolescent girls should include services to promote health and prevent and treat disease. Excluding access to contraception from health plans, therefore limiting women’s and adolescent girls’ ability to plan or prevent pregnancies, is not health for all. It’s discrimination and it fuels further gender inequality.
Fundamental to achieving universal health coverage is equity. All women and girls – rich or poor, urban or rural, educated or illiterate – must be able to access the health services equally. But, in low- and middle-income countries, the proportion of births attended by skilled health personnel differs by up to 80 percentage points between the richest and poorest women. The presence of skilled health personnel during childbirth is a key to preventing maternal and newborn deaths.
These skilled birth attendants and the largely female health workforce must also be allowed to participate in leadership and decision-making, access formal employment, make a fair wage, and work in a place free from physical and sexual violence.
I am working to make sure we also walk the talk when it comes to women in the health workforce. Today, more than 60% of our senior positions are held by women, and we’re working to ensure our regional and country offices follow suit. We can’t be effective at promoting universal health coverage if we don’t have all voices at the table – and today I’m excited to see the female faces from all over the world sharing their ideas for change.
We know that, when universal health coverage is achieved, poverty will be reduced, jobs will be created, economies will grow, and communities will be protected against disease outbreaks. But we also know women’s economic opportunities will advance, and their children’s health and development will follow in step.