International Women's Day - Gender equality beyond 2005: the role of WHO

Panel discussion: The role of WHO in addressing inequities between women and men

Geneva, Switzerland
8 March 2005

Distinguished guests, colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

I welcome you all to this panel discussion.

The third Millennium Development Goal is "Promote gender equality and empower women". In health work it is clear that meeting men's and women's needs equitably is necessary for achieving all the development goals.

Reducing child mortality and improving maternal health are the fourth and fifth goals and they are combined in our World Health Day slogan for this year, of "Make every mother and child count". Making them count entails gender equity.

To achieve it we have to involve the fathers and other male decision-makers as well. They need to know about the need for care, for timely transport to health facilities, and for resources.

The 530 000 women who die every year in pregnancy or from giving birth are perhaps the most glaring example of women's inability, in many parts of the world, to get access to adequate health care.

For HIV prevention, women and girls are often at a severe disadvantage. Violence, together with the low status given to women in many societies, can add to the physical difficulty of ensuring safe sexual practices.

Half the adults now living with HIV/AIDS are women. In some countries almost half of all new HIV infections occur in young people aged 15 to 24 years, and among those infected, women now represent 75%. We cannot very well talk about "empowering women" while we allow social factors and biological differences to weaken the position of women and expose them to more danger than men.

Access to treatment for AIDS is, in many cases, more difficult for women than for men, because the man controls the finances and the woman is tied to the home. We are working hard in the "3 by 5" campaign to ensure equitable access to antiretroviral treatment for women. WHO and UNAIDS are strongly committed to this.

Tobacco control can also be made much more effective by awareness of gender differences. In 2002, the overall tobacco use among men was about four times higher than among women globally. Now, however, more and more women are taking up tobacco use, and tobacco-related diseases and deaths among women are increasing. Marketing strategists are well aware of the different approaches that reach women; health strategists need to be equally aware of them.

Violence is another major risk factor for women's health, and contributes to maternal mortality and HIV infection. In some countries, up to 60% of women report having suffered physical or sexual violence or both. Violence during pregnancy harms both the mother and her unborn child.

In conflict situations and among refugees and displaced people, women are even more exposed to violence, often from combatants. As a member of the Inter-Agency Standing Committee on humanitarian issues, WHO recently called for a concerted effort to reduce gender-based violence in emergencies.

We should not forget the areas where men are at a disadvantage. Their life expectancy, for instance, is shorter than that of women in most countries. In road traffic accidents, three-quarters of those killed or injured are men. Violence and alcohol dependence affect many more men than women and are often related to unemployment and poverty.

Some of you will remember that, ten years ago, WHO was strongly represented at the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Though many of the hopes raised then are not yet fulfilled, the Beijing Declaration and Platform of Action still provides a solid a basis for action by WHO to tackle inequities in health between men and women.

I have mentioned only a very few of the areas in which gender issues are an important part of our programmes. I am sure Joy, Eva, Piroska, Hans and Namita will fill us in on many others.

There are many areas in which we need to do more, and I welcome this opportunity to discuss them. The creation of the Department of Gender, Women and Health reflects our determination to make the gender perspective a part of all our activities. It is one of the keys to equity in health. The department has been working hard to review, assess and rethink our work in this regard. I thank them for this very valuable contribution and look forward to a fruitful discussion.

Thank you.