Message of Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, on International Women’s Day, 8 March 2018

Today, 8 March 2018, we celebrate International Women's Day to recognize the achievements of women and take stock of efforts to accelerate women’s empowerment and gender parity for equal rights and opportunities. The 2018 campaign theme, “#PressforProgress”, highlights the need to be unrelenting in our determination to achieve true gender equality for sustainable socioeconomic development.

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) place women’s empowerment at the centre of development efforts. Women make up half of the world’s population, and leveraging their talent and capacities would contribute to growth and development. Studies suggest that improving gender parity could generate significant economic returns.

Over the last 10 years, countries in sub-Saharan Africa have made significant progress in gender equality. More countries are implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Women’s Health to develop national health development strategies that incorporate multisectoral actions for advancing women’s health through the life-course.

According to the Global Gender Gap Report 2017, the gender gap in health and survival has decreased in sub-Saharan Africa more than in any other region over the past decade. Investing in the health of women and children has a significant multiplier effect and lays the foundation of economic and social development.

Several African countries are leading the way in putting women in positions of power to influence bolder legislation and policy-making, enabling women to become agents of their own development, make decisions and take action to improve their lives. In Kenya, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, for instance, 30% of parliamentary seats are reserved for women. At 50%, Rwanda has one of the highest rates of women’s representation in the world.

However, although the gender gap is narrowing, gender parity will only be achieved in about 100 years if current trends continue. Less than half of women of reproductive age in the Region are able to meet their family planning needs with modern methods. Overall, secondary school attendance among girls is still low at 22%, with many days missed due to lack of facilities for healthy, safe, and dignified menstruation. Violence against women is rife, including intimate partner violence and during crises such as armed conflicts and natural disasters.

New HIV infections and HIV-related deaths are rising, especially among young women. Through movements such as the “Free to Shine” campaign led by the Organisation of African First Ladies (OAFLA) and the African Union, countries are renewing their commitment to eliminate mother-to-child-transmission of HIV and syphilis. #PressforProgress to eliminate HIV infections, which should no longer be a threat to children, adolescents and mothers in the African Region.

Health services should reach the vulnerable and marginalized. WHO is rolling out universal health coverage (UHC) to strengthen health systems and provide equitable access to health care for all. #PressforProgress on UHC and the SDGs to promote equal access to health services.

Over two million girls aged between four and 12 years are still subjected to harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM) every year. FGM constitutes extreme discrimination against women and girls, and breaches the health practitioner ethical principle of doing no harm. WHO is working with UN partners, UNICEF and UNFPA, against the medicalization of FGM. #PressforProgress for zero tolerance of FGM.

The maternal mortality ratio in the Region is high at 542 per 100 000. Increased gender parity in education lowers maternal, infant and child mortality rates. WHO and UNICEF have launched a network for improving quality of care for mothers, newborns and children. #PressforProgress to halve maternal and newborn deaths in health facilities in five years.

Limiting women’s access to work hampers economic growth and development. WHO is taking concrete action to employ more women. The WHO Regional Office for Africa is actively encouraging qualified, talented women to apply for positions, and shortlists are required to include a female candidate. The new WHO Director-General boldly constituted his senior leadership team to comprise over 60% women. #PressforProgress for equal employment opportunities.

As we celebrate International Women’s Day, I reaffirm the commitment of WHO to support countries in the African Region to close the gender parity gap and promote gender equality, to ensure that we leave no one behind. We can all #PressforProgress.