International Women’s Day: From Crisis to Opportunity

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid

President Obama's announcement of his intention to work with Congress to release funding for UNFPA shows the world that the United States wants women around the globe to be able to enjoy what women in the United States have already achieved.

Editor’s Note: The following is an address given by Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA, in honor of International Women’s Day.

Ladies and

It is always
a pleasure for me to talk about women’s rights because I myself am
an example of what is possible for women when we are given opportunity.  

Many of you
already know that I was the first woman from my home country of Saudi
Arabia to receive a government scholarship to attend university in the
United States. I attended Mills College in Oakland, California and Wayne
State University in Detroit.  

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Education is
a powerful tool for women’s empowerment, equality and leadership.
It has contributed in a major way to where I am today.  

In every region
of the world, more girls are attending school and enrolment rates are
rising. This is an area where we are making solid progress. But it is
also an area where we still need to focus on adolescent girls who continue
to be more disadvantaged than boys.  

I arrived this
morning from the Clinton Global Initiative Retreat during which we were
trying to focus on some areas that are of a priority for the Initiative
at this particular time of multiple crises.  

In the Human
Capital working group, we recommended that we focus on girls, especially
adolescent girls, due to the vulnerability many face in their local
contexts in all countries – developed and developing. We also said
that, if given real life opportunities, these young girls can become
real change agents and innovators for a better life. Attention has to
be given to boys as well, since behavioural change is part of growing
up and maturing. Therefore addressing boys and men must be given even
higher priority than we collectively have done so far.  

Progress is
possible when people join together, united for a common cause. 

Today I want
to focus on the urgent need for all of us to join together for the common
cause of women’s health and women’s rights. This is an area that
needs urgent action and increased investment.  

Fifteen years
ago, the world agreed that every woman has the right to sexual and reproductive
health. They took this historic decision at the International Conference
on Population and Development.  179 governments, including the
United States, agreed to guarantee universal access to reproductive
health by the year 2015.  

UNFPA is working
in more than 150 countries, supporting them to keep this promise. We
enjoy a wide circle of supporters and I thank all of you in the room
for your unwavering support during my eight years as UNFPA Executive
Director. And now with the leadership of President Barack Obama, the
United States intends to rejoin the 180 governments that support us.  

President Obama’s
announcement of his intention to work with the US Congress to release
funding for UNFPA shows the world that the United States wants women
around the globe to be able to enjoy what women in the United States
have already achieved.  

This is welcome
news and a great day for women, girls and their families around the
world. We warmly applaud this action by President Obama, which underlines
his support to protecting the lives and human dignity of women and girls
who are vulnerable in their own communities. 

On behalf of
all of us, I would like to take this opportunity to thank Senator Leahy
for his passionate advocacy on our behalf in the United States Senate
in yesterday’s debate over UNFPA funding in the spending bill. What
a great victory and thank you to the many NGO advocates in the room
today who tirelessly advocate on our behalf. 

We look forward
to working closely with the United States in partnership with our ongoing
initiatives, such as training midwives to ensure safe deliveries, expanding
access to family planning, delivering reproductive health supplies to
clinics in remote areas, supporting the treatment of obstetric fistula,
meeting the special needs of women in crises, preventing HIV among young
people, and ending violence against women. Our goal is to support countries
and communities to achieve universal access to sexual and reproductive
health as a basic human right.  

We are making
progress but it is still slow and uneven. Together we must do more and

Just a few
years ago, few people had heard of fistula, but now it is reported in
major newspapers, featured on television shows and being addressed by
leaders and communities in more than 40 nations. 

Together with
partners, UNFPA is working to end fistula and we are making progress.
Today, thousands of women have received corrective surgery in new health
centers, doctors are being trained and the condition is being prevented
as girls and women gain information and healthcare.  

Last week,
I visited Tanzania, met with government officials and visited many facilities. 
The government is dedicated to improving women’s health in their country
but they have a challenging road ahead.  

The government
and the people of Tanzania know that they cannot do it alone, but they
also know that they must lead us, as we support them in facing the challenges
of development.  

We have learned
from decades of development work that ownership of change is key to
bringing about actual change and ensuring its sustainability. The countries
are now claiming their right to be owners of their own change. Together
we must respect it and support them to achieve it. 

In Tanzania,
a woman faces a 1 in 24 chance of dying during pregnancy and childbirth,
compared to a 1 in 4800 risk for a woman here in the United States. 
The government is working to improve their health system to reverse
this reality. 

And we also
need to make sure that this great gap is narrowed.  

In the past
eight years as head of UNFPA, I have visited many countries where I
have witnessed the sad and outrageous truth – that maternal mortality
is the largest health inequity in the world. I have seen clinics with
little or no drugs, beds that are occupied by two women, a severe lack
of equipment, and a shortage of doctors, nurses and midwives.  

As a result,
during the next minute, another woman will die from complications of
pregnancy and childbirth – more than half a million women every year. 
This does not have to be the case because we know what needs to be done.
To ensure safe motherhood, every woman needs at least three things:
family planning, skilled attendance at birth and emergency obstetric
care if complications arise. 

This is why
UNFPA is joining together with other partners, especially the World
Health Organization, UNICEF and the World Bank, to fully support governments
as they work to decrease maternal, neonatal and child mortality, including
through improving health systems. As we do that, we focus on ensuring
primary healthcare is reaching communities, where the real stories of
life and death take place. We know that when we have a functioning system
to avert maternal death and disability we have a well functioning health
system. It will deliver to women when women are ready to deliver. 

We are working
to ensure that health systems can deliver an essential package of sexual
and reproductive health supplies and services and that it responds to
the 200 million women who have unmet need to family planning. We must
support them to determine the number and spacing of their children and
to achieve the best quality of reproductive health.  

In Tanzania,
I visited a health facility that offers these integrated services, in
spite of its poor setting and quality of equipment. But a woman can
go to one place and get counseling and services for family planning,
HIV prevention and safe delivery. This approach has many benefits: 
it is a boost for public health and it is also cost-effective; it is
equally important that it decreases the stigma associated with HIV.
Most of all, it is a one-stop for women to meet their health needs. 

At UNFPA, partnership
and working with national institutions have been a long standing way
of work. But calls for partnerships are increasing, not only as United
Nations system but as development partners.  

In Tanzania
and other seven countries, the United Nations Country Teams, composed
of all of the agencies working in the country, are piloting a triangular
partnership among the government, the development partners (United Nations
and donors) and civil society organizations to support governments achieve
their development plans.   

We call these
Delivering as One
Pilots. They have worked and I saw real success
in Tanzania, with results such as pooling resources, decreasing transaction
costs, and even saving administrative costs to the benefits of programmes.
We know that, out of 90 countries that will be rolling out new programmes
in the next three years, at least 40 of them want to Deliver as One.  

For the ICPD
agenda, this is a dream come true. Only when a coalition of partners
agree that the right to reproductive health is a common agenda and when
they work together to integrate it into development plans at the national
and community level, can we say that we are beginning to see some sustainability
of the programmes.  

I deeply believe
that the only way for this very vital agenda to endure and serve women
all over the world is when we, the community of committed actors, are
willing to share it with others from outside of our own small circle. 

know from 40 years of experience that the poor health of women and girls
goes beyond the health sector. To be successful, we must also tackle
gender inequality and the violence and discrimination that girls and
women continue to face. We must work across sectors and ensure that
others are adopting this agenda as their own. 

Our vision
is to promote the health of women throughout the entire life cycle.
Women do not just suddenly die when giving birth only from obstructed
birth; they die because they have been deprived since their birth of
nutrition, health care, education, and have been exposed to harmful
cultural traditional practices and other conditions.   

has shown that change cannot be imposed from the outside, to be lasting
it must come from within. This is why we are working with other partners
to support countries in strengthening their communities, institutions
and health systems. This is why we are supporting women and other community
leaders as agents of change. 

Today as we
celebrate International Women’s Day, let us recognize and celebrate
the progress we are making.  In every country, women are standing
up for their rights and more and more men are joining them.  

During this
financial crisis, we have an opportunity to refocus on our priorities.
It is time for us to focus on building the capacities of civil society
organizations that are community-based, so they can lead the change
that must come from within.  

It is time
for us to focus on building institutions in countries that support women
and girls, and mobilize boys and men for equality. 

Women are a
powerful force for change and innovation. They are agents of peace,
prosperity and stability. And we must put our resources together to
ensure that the women’s institutions at the community and national
levels are built in innovative and creative ways that allow their sustainability. 

We know that
recovery from the present crisis will take a long time and we know that
we have not seen yet the bottom of it. But we also know that out of
crisis comes opportunity.  

We must turn
these challenges into opportunities. And there are many examples from
which we can learn. 

Today after
a terrible genocide, Rwanda has more women members of Parliament than
any other nation.  

In Liberia,
after years of conflict, the people elected the first African woman
President, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, a great leader. And the country is
turning itself around with standards of education and health improving
and clear actions for zero tolerance for violence against women.  

From Tanzania
to Turkey, from Egypt to Ethiopia, from Laos to Liberia, from Bolivia
to Brazil, we are making progress for women’s health and women’s

And I am confident
that this progress will accelerate with the renewed and important support
of the United States and wonderful people like you.

I call on all
of us to work together, to lower barriers that keep us apart and make
us work in silos.  

I call on all
of us to pool resources in an innovative way and to share in the implementation
of this visionary agenda for the empowerment of women.  

I call on all
of us to identify our strengths and build on them and identify our gaps
and work together to address them.  

Only through
an honest and open partnership can we reach our common goals. We have
to be effective and efficient and we will be collectively and individually
scrutinized for how we respond to the needs of populations around the
world in the context of the financial crisis that will impact us all.
Women of the world deserve that and we are ready to respond to them. 

Thank you. 

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Reproductive rights are a public health issue. That's a fact.

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