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Statement by Dr Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, on the occasion of International Women's Day

7 March 2007

On International Women's Day, I invite you to join me in celebrating women worldwide. Women are the backbone of all our societies - as leaders, as caregivers, and as mothers. Yet on this day and every day, we remember that too many women in the world lack access to the most basic health care.

Women have particular needs and face specific health issues. However, the health needs of women are given neither the attention nor the prominence they deserve. Each year, for example, more than half a million women die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth alone - a number that has hardly changed in 20 years. In 2006, 74% of people living with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa were young women.

This year's International Women's Day is devoted to ending impunity for violence against women and girls. We know that intimate partner violence is the most common form of violence in women’s lives - much more so than assault or rape by strangers or acquaintances. The high level of physical and sexual violence committed by an intimate male partner has shocking consequences for women's health. Furthermore, up to one in five women reports being sexually abused before the age of 15, which is associated with ill health for years to come.

The health of women is given far too little space in plans for development and too little attention in many health agendas.

Women's health is threatened because of the poor conditions in which many women work, the risks we encounter in our reproductive roles, and the discrimination and poverty that women face. I would like to use this opportunity to underline my commitment to making sure that the work of the World Health Organization will have a positive and lasting impact on the health of women.

We know that poverty is the single greatest impediment to development and change. Poverty is responsible for the majority of deaths from preventable causes. In every country, poverty appears as high rates of maternal and childhood mortality and high rates of death and illness from infectious diseases. The health of women is clearly at risk when they have little money, no medicines and no access to prevention or treatment services. This is often compounded by social norms that do not give women voice or equal opportunities.

WHO is working to address the specific vulnerabilities and health needs of women. We are working to meet women's sexual and reproductive health needs. We are working to prevent violence against women and to reduce the burden of infections, injuries, chronic diseases, mental health problems and other chronic conditions that affect women.

Women make up a large proportion of the health workforce. We work as doctors, nurses, midwives and community health workers. Women also provide the bulk of care for their families. This is particularly striking in sub-Saharan Africa where the burden of care for people living with AIDS and affected children is provided in the home. WHO is investing in strengthening the health workforce.

I strongly believe that women hold the key to improving health, as agents of change in the family and in the community, and as leaders in all areas. Given the right support, women can be a positive force in ways that can lift households and entire communities out of poverty.

In my personal role as a health leader, I am committed to improving the health of women everywhere, so that all people can attain the health and development goals that we have set ourselves. Investing in women and women's health means investing in human progress.

For more information please contact:

Christine McNab
Communications Department
WHO, Geneva
Tel: +41 22 791 4688
Mobile: +41 79 254 6815

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