The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day, “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”, is a clarion call to all of us that rapid economic and transformational development will only be achieved by addressing and resolving the gender-based differences relating to health needs, risk behaviours, power and control over resources and information, and access to health services. For its part, the World Health Organization has prioritized and promoted leadership in gender, equity and rights across all its health policies and programmes with a view to achieving universal health coverage and attaining the triple billion goals set out in our new Programme of Work.
Many countries in our region have made great strides towards gender parity in education, health, economic and political systems, and have incorporated multisectoral actions for advancing women’s health through the life course in their national health development strategies. These advances are reflected in the 2018 Global Gender Gap Report which shows that, over the past decade, our region has improved more than any other in closing the health and survival gender gap. Indeed, two countries in the region — Botswana and Lesotho — have fully closed both their educational attainment and health and survival gender gaps.
African women are increasingly occupying positions of power and influencing bolder legislation and policy-making and demonstrating to other women that they too have a voice and can make decisions on issues impacting their lives. Rwanda has the largest proportion of female parliamentarians in the world (61%), and together with Ethiopia, has near-parity in ministerial positions; in Namibia, the proportion of women in parliament stands at about 46%. These positive developments, however, mask the fact that the region’s gender gap has started to widen again due to significant inter-country variations in educational attainment, political empowerment, wage equality and the numbers of women engaged in professional and technical work.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I urge the international community, our Member States and all other stakeholders to “Think equal, build smart, innovate for change”. Deep-seated gender, equity and rights issues are responsible for the persistently high number of HIV-related deaths, especially among young women, as well as unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality and other harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation. We must also confront lifestyle issues and risk factors contributing to the increasing prevalence of non-communicable diseases among women in Africa; ensure that girls remain in school until the completion of their secondary education; and end all forms of violence against women and girls.
In celebrating this year’s International Women’s Day, I reaffirm the WHO commitment to gender equality and women empowerment. Let us all “think equal, build smart, innovate for change” to improve health outcomes for women and girls so they can realize their potential and contribute to transformative socioeconomic and political development in the Africa region.