Message of Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2017

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Today, on 8 March 2017, we join the world in commemorating International Women’s Day, calling on every person to Be Bold for Change to play a part in helping to drive better outcomes for women.

November 2015 was a significant moment for women around the world. This was when the Sustainable Development Goals and the WHO’s Global Strategy for Women’s Children’s and Adolescents’ Health were launched. The world was urged to end all forms of discrimination against all women and girls, everywhere, and ensure that these populations not only survive, but also thrive and transform the world.

What would a transformed world for women and girls look like?

It would be a world where women become agents of their own development, able to analyze their environment, make their own decisions and take their own actions. It would be a world where women, individually and with others, challenge routines, conventions, laws, norms and forms of power that shape their lives and are perpetuated. It would be a world where women are not discriminated against through laws and policies, gender-based stereotypes and social norms and practices. 

In the African Region, this would be a bold new world.

Currently, women and girls carry a significant burden of ill-health in the Region. Young girls who become pregnant are likely to be poor, married early, be illiterate or have little education. Adolescent girls are more likely to have unmet needs for family planning, leading to unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortions.

Around 20 million unsafe abortions occur worldwide each year, and 6.2 million take place in the African region. Unsafe abortions are preventable, yet they continue to pose undue risks to a woman’s health and may endanger her life.

In 2015, nearly half of all adolescents living with HIV globally were in six countries, five of them in the African Region. Adolescent girls and young women aged 15 – 24 in Southern Africa are disproportionately affected, accounting for about 30% of all new infections.

Nine out of ten countries with the highest rates of child marriage are in the African Region. As a result, around 70 to 80 % of births among adolescent girls are occurring in married adolescents. 

Studies have shown that child marriage and intimate partner violence all put women and girls at greater risk for HIV. They are more likely to have forced and/or risky sex and may be less able to negotiate using protection which increases the risk of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

About half of maternal deaths occur in adolescence, with girls under the age of 15 five times more likely to die. About 60% of all maternal deaths take place in humanitarian situations like refugee camps.

Here, women and girls are also at greater risk of sexual and gender-based violence, HIV, rape, early marriage and trafficking. Evidence shows that over 75% of people affected by humanitarian crises are women and children, who are up to 14 times more likely to die than men in an emergency.

Women and girls are marginalized on multiple levels, especially if they are poor, young, and live in rural areas. The World Economic Forum predicts the gender gap won’t close for another 169 years. That seems insurmountable. It must change.

Skilled attendance at birth is one of the most important strategies for improving maternal and neonatal deaths. Investment in girls’ education has yielded lower maternal and infant deaths, lower rates of HIV and AIDS, and better child nutrition. Girls with secondary schooling are up to six times less likely to marry as children than those with little or no education.

In the African Region, empowering women and improving equitable access to health care, particularly across urban-rural divides, will promote health for women, girls and their families.

The Millennium Development Goals showed what could be done with ambitious targets. Maternal mortality rates dropped by 45% worldwide, more women are represented in parliaments, and more girls attend school than ever before. The 2030 Sustainable Development Goals and WHO’s Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health continue that momentum.

I have a vision for a transformed Africa which upholds and empowers women and girls for the benefit of all society. I call on men and women, communities and governments: Be bold for change and end all discrimination against women. This is the way to a more equitable, healthy and prosperous Region.