Gender, equity and human rights

United Nations Sixty First Commission on the Status of Women

Statement delivered on behalf of the World Health Organization

17 MARCH 2017 | NEW YORK, USA – Mr Chairperson, Excellencies and Distinguished Delegates,

Achieving gender equality, as well as the economic empowerment of women and girls, is a top priority for the World Health Organization. WHO draws specific attention to SDG 3 (good health and well-being) and SDG5 (gender equality and women’s empowerment) in the context of improving worker productivity and working conditions, and advancing women’s economic empowerment and economic growth.

Last September, the High Level Commission on Health Employment and Economic Growth, co-chaired by the WHO Director General, released its report “Working for Health and Growth”. The UN General Assembly, through Resolution A/RES/71/159, welcomed this Report and urged member states to act on its recommendations. These include increasing investments in the health workforce that transform unpaid care to decent work, addressing persistent gender biases, and increasing women’s participation in leadership positions.

The health sector is a leading economic and employment sector: an engine for economic growth and job creation. Unlike other sectors and industries, jobs in the health sector are growing, and growing fast. Over the next fifteen years, 40 million additional jobs are anticipated in this sector. Also, unlike most other sectors and industries, jobs in the health sector affect large numbers of women. Across a sample of 123 countries, women make up 70% of employment in the health sector, while only 40% of total employment.

As well as highlighting numbers, the High Level Commission’s report recognizes the vulnerability of women working in the health sector. Systematic gender biases continue. We still see high levels of informal employment, prominent pay gaps, and under-representation of women in leadership and decision-making. Women working in the health sector are also particularly at risk of physical and sexual violence, including targeted attacks at health facilities. Violence against women is a barrier to women’s empowerment and adversely affects their health. Endorsed by the World Health Assembly in May 2016, the global plan of action - to strengthen the role of the health systems in addressing interpersonal violence - highlights the crucial role of the health sector in preventing and responding to violence against women within the health system and against clients.

WHO supports the 61st Commission on the Status of Women’s affirmation that structural barriers to women’s economic empowerment are compounded by multiple and intersecting forms of inequality and discrimination. WHO led the “Midwives Voices, Midwives Realities” 2016 Report which documented the experiences of several thousand midwifery personnel in 93 countries. It revealed how hierarchies of power, gender discrimination and harassment hinder the provision of quality care for women and newborns. It also showed that, when the voices of midwives are heard, significant progress can be made.

In the context of women’s economic empowerment, WHO draws specific attention to SDG targets 3.7 and 5.6 which call for Member States to ensure women’s rights to universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including family planning. Women’s participation in the workforce is frequently determined by their ability to decide for themselves whether, when and with whom to have children.

SGD target 3.4 refers to the reduction, by one third, premature mortality from non-communicable diseases through prevention and treatment by 2030. Adult women and men in poor health are more likely to be unemployed, be less productive, and earn less. Noncommunicable diseases continue to be the leading causes of death among women globally, accounting for nearly 65% of female deaths worldwide, with three quarters occurring in Low and Middle Income Countries.

Poor nutrition in early life hinders cognitive development and worsens educational outcomes, with girls particularly at risk. Breastfed children are less prone to disease, so stand a better chance to become productive adults. We need to invest in nutrition, harnessing the UN Decade of Action on Nutrition. Good nutrition, better productivity and women’s empowerment go hand in hand.

Recognizing that addressing gender biases in the work force start at home, WHO recently introduced a new Policy on Gender Equality in Staffing. This commits to increasing the proportion of female staff in higher professional categories, as well as to gender-sensitive recruitment practice.

WHO is strengthening its focus on integrating gender, equity, human rights and social determinants across our operational and technical work. A report on female migrant care workers and health is nearing completion which will highlight a population group that is playing an increasingly important role in providing care and buttressing the health systems of many countries of the global North.

In conclusion, WHO is committed to advancing women’s economic empowerment and gender equality by delivering on the High Level Commission’s recommendations and actions. We are working with the ILO, OECD and other partners to put forward a multi-sectoral action plan that delivers on this commitment.

We believe that, across the world, and in all formal and informal employment sectors, investing in female workers through a gender equality and human rights approach will promote the virtuous cycle of economic empowerment and gender equality.