Message of the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2009

The theme for International Women's Day this year is: Women and men united to end violence against women and girls. This theme brings to mind the theme for International Women's Day 2007 which was: Ending impunity for violence against women and girls. The re-emergence of the theme of violence against women and girls, just two years after, reflects our growing concern about the root causes of the violence and the complex nature of its underlying factors. International Women's Day, which is celebrated annually since more than 30 years, is an occasion to take stock of the situation of women worldwide. Furthermore, I would like to state that equality between men and women is a prerequisite for resolving the problem of violence against women and girls.

Although significant progress has been noted, women continue to grapple with crying inequalities in many respects in developing countries. In education worldwide, for example, two-thirds of children not enrolled in school are girls, while two-thirds of illiterate adults are women. We all know that education of women and girls is crucial to the success of strategies for development and economic growth and that it plays a decisive role in women's empowerment.

Over and above the many inequalities and injustices that women and girls face in the areas of health, education, economics and employment, they also face all forms of violence in the home, in the family, within the community, at the workplace and even during humanitarian crises resulting from whether armed conflicts or natural disasters.

Violence against women and girls has long been treated as a taboo subject, relegated to backstage as a public health problem. While in general women and girls all face the problem of violence regardless of their social conditions, it is the poorest groups among them who are the most vulnerable, subjected to the most extreme discriminatory practices.

Violence against women may take various forms such as physical, sexual, moral and psychological violence, deprivation and constraints which are all generally denounced, as well as violence against migrant workers, trafficking of women and girls, and traditional practices affecting the health of women and girls. The more a community is exposed to poverty, unemployment, social conflict, lack of incomes and gender inequalities, the greater the magnitude of these forms of violence.

In accordance with Millennium Development Goals 1 and 3, on reduction of extreme poverty and hunger and on promotion of gender equality and women's empowerment, Member States should take appropriate measures to ensure that women have equitable access to goods and services. Political will to address the problems of violence is essential for public health action. Member States have the obligation to protect women and children from violence. The application of tools developed in the majority of countries to help prevent and eliminate violence against women and children will depend on the firm commitment of governments.

At the last session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa, ministers of health of the African Region requested the setting up of a Commission on Women's Health in the African Region to produce the evidence base regarding the impact that a good health status of women can have on socioeconomic development. In addition, I am pleased to announce that, from this year onwards, 4 September will be commemorated every year as Women's Health Day in the African Region. The World Health Organization and all social and economic partners are steadfastly committed to contributing towards the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. I call on everyone to spare no effort to ensure that women's human rights become a reality today and for generations to come.

I would like to end by expressing my best regards to all women especially the women of Africa.

Thank you.