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Source: United Nations secretary general

Friends and Colleagues,

I am honoured to join this year’s Women Leaders in Global Health Conference among these inspiring women leaders, and on the International Day of Rural Women.

If ever there was a time to step up progress for women’s leadership in global health, it certainly is now.  

Women are making up over 70% of the world’s health workforce, but seven out of 10 global health leaders are men. At the current rate of change, it will take over half a century to reach gender parity in senior management in global health.

This has real life implications. Those who make decisions set priorities and allocate funding. They have the power to choose who will benefit. Too often, the answer is: men.

In the early days of COVID-19, it became clear that most personal protective equipment, PPE, was designed for men rather than women – although most frontline health workers were women. This invisible discrimination lead not just to discomfort, but created greater risk for women on the frontlines.
That is just one example of how health systems are, almost by default, discriminating against women.

We need to accelerate our efforts for women’s leadership and move from words to actions. Women’s leadership has proven that when they are in the decision-making roles, things happen that are more inclusive that are more urgent, at scale with ambition, and we don’t leave people behind by our natures.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Twenty-five years ago at the landmark Beijing Conference on Women, global leaders committed to increase the number of women in leadership positions in health professions, including researchers and scientists. 

But in 2020, progress is stagnating.

In the broader areas of global health governance, research and development, women are nearly invisible. Photographs of health leaders during the current crisis are frequently all-male affairs.  

In 2019, only 20% of global health organizations were found to have gender parity on their boards, and 25% had gender parity at senior management level.

There is simply no justification for these figures, and I can tell you that because we had to make a concerted efforts here at United Nations when we said gender parity had to happen at senior management but also at middle management. It has happened for us and we continue to push against all the other levels and different constituencies.
The barriers that prevent women from progressing into these senior positions start with inequalities in education and opportunities. They include wage gaps and the disproportionate burden of care and domestic responsibilities borne by women. 

Solutions need to be comprehensive and tackle both visible and invisible obstacles to women’s advancement.

This is not just a matter of justice and fairness. There is plenty of evidence that countries where women have led national pandemic responses have fared better in keeping the crisis under control.

As I like to say – Women Rise for All. Women’s leadership benefits everyone: the whole community.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

As we mark the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action – a watershed moment for women’s rights – we must take the opportunity to assess progress and address remaining obstacles. That is why this gathering is so important.
In the healthcare sector, this starts with providing women health workers with safe and decent working conditions, especially in the current COVID-19 context.

It also means taking action to prevent and end the gender biases, discrimination, physical and sexual violence and harassment at work that women health workers often face, particularly in our crisis context.

Going beyond healthcare, women must be meaningfully engaged in leading and developing not just the response to the pandemic, but all plans for building back a stronger economic recovery.

We need to step up support for women’s leadership at all levels, from local communities to global organisations, from science to politics. As the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, “Women belong in all places where decisions are being made.”

To support this work, we need data that is disaggregated by sex. This is a call we have had for the last decade or more. That is the only way to measure the extent of inequalities and discrimination, and to shape evidence-based policies that will allow us to make that call on integrity for the investments that are needed.

The intersection of different forms of discrimination and inequalities has had a devastating impact on global health outcomes.  Policies, processes and practices that do not take women into account are harmful not just to women. By denying women opportunities, we have to understand the fact that they will be harmful to everyone.

Of course we never have enough time and we are already behind, but we can commit to the challenge of advancing gender equality in global health as a part of a wider agenda of the sustainable development goals.

Increasing women’s meaningful participation at all levels of leadership is not optional. It is imperative for delivering real transformation, equality and better health outcomes for all, with lasting, positive impacts beyond the current COVID-19 crisis. We don’t go back from the pre-COVID era; but going forward, we would land in our focus on inter-generational transition so that the younger generation must take the borne of it now, and we must get our shoulders behind the wheel to support them and support that future.

Thank you.


MIL OSI United Nations News