“Gender equality must remain a top priority in order to close the health equity gap worldwide”– Lakshmi Puri

Statement by the UN Women Deputy Executive Director Ms. Lakshmi Puri, at the 68th Session of the World Health Assembly, “Women and Health: 20 years of Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action” held on 19 May, in Geneva, Switzerland.

Date: Tuesday, May 19, 2015

UN Women Deputy Executive Director, Ms. Lakshmi Puri. Photo: UN Women/Gustavo Gonzalez-Canali

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I would like to thank the World Health Organization (WHO),

The distinguished Ministers of Brazil, Chile, and Uruguay, for co-organizing this important global event to mark the 20-year anniversary of the Beijing Platform for Action and the commemoration and recommitment to Critical Area C – “Women and health.”  

The Beijing Platform for Action, which establishes strategic objectives and prescribes detailed actions to be taken by different stakeholders and duty bearers, remains the gold standard for normative commitments and international frameworks for action to achieve gender equality and women’s empowerment. And even after 20-years the Beijing Platform for Action remains applicable and relevant.

A key value added of the Beijing Platform for Action is its fundamental assertion of the realization of women's right to the highest attainable standards of physical and mental health. The Beijing Platform for Action emphasizes the importance of ensuring equal access for women to health care and highlights women’s gender-specific health needs. It also pays attention to the multiple contributions women make as providers of health care for their family, community and society more broadly.

As such, women are recognized as major contributors and enablers of economic, social and sustainable development. Another important aspect of Beijing Platform for Action is its holistic approach and how it links each critical area, including health, to other critical areas of concern such as women and poverty, women and the economy, women and the environment, violence against women, women's human rights, women and education – all of which are the stuff of the proposed Sustainable Development Goal’s today.

“Women and Health” and the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action 

The Beijing Platform for Action outlines the following strategic objectives on “women and health” (critical area of concern “C”)

Increase women's access throughout the life cycle to timely, appropriate, affordable and quality health care, information and related services. Strengthen preventive programmes that promote women's health. Undertake gender-sensitive approaches that ensure sexual and reproductive health and rights including HIV/AIDs. Promote research and disseminate information on women's health. Increase resources and monitoring mechanisms with engendered indicators to ensure gender mainstreaming of health policies and programs. 

And under each of these objectives indicates actions to be taken by governments and other stakeholders individually and collectively. It also emphasizes the rights based approach to women's health in all its dimensions– demand side in particular and gender sensitive provision of health services on the supply side respecting their rights. It emphasized women's participation and leadership in the health sector as critical to gender equality and women's empowerment but also portrayed the overall objective of the attainment of the highest standards of health by women as a right and the responsibility of the State and the community to ensure the enjoyment of this right. 

Since the adoption of the Beijing Platform for Action, improving the health of women has been an urgent priority for the United Nations system through the Beijing Platform for Action review and dialogue around it. Over the past 20 years, governments have taken steps towards implementing the commitments made in Beijing. Overall progress has been made in reducing maternal mortality and morbidity rates, objectives that were among the targets of the Millennium Development Goals.  

Although important progress has been made particularly in the last decade, on life expectancy, maternal mortality and morbidity, unsafe abortions, access to contraception and sex education, adolescent and child pregnancy, the number of women living with HIV and new infections, non-communicable diseases, and violence against women at all ages, societies are still failing women in relation to health, most acutely in developing countries and among the poorest and marginalized women in all countries.

Discrimination on the basis of their sex leads to health disadvantages for women arising from poorer nutrition to denial of access to health related information and services. The gender discrimination in health prevention, education and information, access and delivery of health services remain a key issue to track and requires course correction.

Despite discrimination, women are major contributors to the health of entire populations, through their roles as primary caregivers in the family and health-care providers in both the formal and informal health sectors. It is known that women played important roles in health care going back to ancient Greece and Rome. However, history shows that in the 14th century, changes in ideas about the societal role of women began to take root and undermine their role in medicine. In the late 19th and early 20th century, the tides began to change, along with the general women’s rights movement. Pioneers such as Elizabeth Blackwell and Mary Stuart Fisher began paving the way for new ideas about women's roles in the medical profession. Their contributions to the women's rights movement have served as an inspiration for countless others to follow their passion in medicine and the healing sciences.

We need to address the structural and social determinants of women’s health. Sex-based biological factors negatively interact with inequalities based on gender, age, race, ethnicity and class in shaping women’s exposure to health risks, experience of ill health, access to health services and health outcomes. Gender inequalities in the allocation of resources, such as income, education, economic, social and political participation, health care and nutrition, are strongly associated with poor health and reduced well-being.

Looking ahead as a contribution to the WHO Global Strategy and the achievement of the proposed Sustainable Development Goals on gender equality and women’s empowerment and health, we must affirm that it is possible to eliminate the gender discrimination in health and achieve the Beijing objectives. Interventions are yet simple to execute, they require political commitment and coordinated action across governments, UN entities, civil society and the private sector. Acting alone, ministries of health and ministers of women rights are limited in the efficacy of their action; a whole-of-government approach is required for the societal causes of gender inequalities to be addressed. In parallel, a whole-of-UN approach must support comprehensive national responses. In addition, strategic engagement with civil society, academia, professional bodies and the private sector are key when it comes to promoting women's rights and their full implementation. We need to ensure that policies and programming on health at all levels are gender-sensitive and that can best be assured by the active participation of women and girls in the design and implementation. We need to strengthen sexual and reproductive health care and services as key entry points for women and girls who are at risk of violence especially sexual violence. Actions lie within and beyond the health-care system.

Cross-sectoral interventions, legislative frameworks that empower women and protect their rights, gender mainstreaming across the health sector, education and economic empowerment and investment in basic infrastructure - roads water and sanitation. Women and girls empowerment hold the key to reaching more prosperous and developed societies if they can access knowledge, education and health care and the tools to innovate within their communities.

As recent health pandemics have shown like in the case of Ebola, women are differentially and disproportionately affected, their rights and gendered roles put under stress. At the same time they carry the responsibility of care in the household and in health-care centers with courage and stamina even at the risk to themselves. Their social mobilization has been key to bending the curve in Liberia and progress in the other affected countries.

As we aim to accelerate the full implementation of the Beijing Platform for Action and the International Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, and to achieve the proposed Sustainable Development Goals on ensuring healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all of all ages, it is important to stress the symbiosis of “women and health.”

Gender equality must remain a top priority in order to close the health equity gap worldwide and contribute to development across all three dimensions – economic, social, and environmental.

Thank you.