Africa: Progress for Women and Girls is Progress for All

Photo: UN Photo/Marco Dormino

Students attend class at a public school in Taliko, a neighbourhood of Bamako.

As we commemorate International Women’s Day and celebrate the many achievements of women and girls, we should also remember that for far too many, the ability to live a healthy, productive life free from violence, to fully enjoy their rights, remains an aspiration. So today is also a time to recommit ourselves to delivering once and for all on the promise of gender equality, women’s empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights for all women and girls everywhere.

Great progress has been achieved over the past two decades in a number of areas. Fewer women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. In fact, we have reduced maternal mortality by nearly 50 percent. Women’s access to family planning and antenatal care has also improved.

More women have access to education, work and political participation. More girls are going to school, with primary enrolment rates approaching 90 percent. This has positive implications for other aspects of their lives and is, in fact, good for all of us, men included. Educated women and girls can make informed decisions about their health and lives. They can claim their rights and contribute more fully to their families and communities. When they are in leadership roles, they can work more effectively to promote sustainable development, peace and good governance.

Yet women and girls continue to face human rights violations, including violence and harmful practices. Laws designed to protect their rights, where they exist, are often not enforced. One in 3 women is subjected to violence over the course of her lifetime, often by someone she knows. Millions of girls around the world still face the risk of genital mutilation/cutting, despite a century of efforts to put an end to it. Every day, 20,000 girls below age 18 give birth in developing countries. Nine in 10 of these births occur within marriage or union, which reflects the fact that the percentage of girls being married off before they turn 18 has not changed much in recent years.

As we chart the development path ahead, let us look to the foundation laid 20 years ago in Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development, which recognized that empowering women and girls was both the right thing to do and the key to improved well-being for all – a message echoed a year later by world leaders in Beijing.

The comprehensive ICPD@20 global review recently led by UNFPA points to enormous development gains over the past two decades. But it also reveals that persistent inequalities and discrimination continue to undermine the human rights of far too women and girls. These inequalities, if not addressed, threaten to derail development. That is why, as we build a new sustainable development framework, it is so critical that we put the most marginalized and vulnerable women and girls at its center.

On this International Women’s Day, it’s time to make good on our promise to the world’s women and girls. UNFPA is firmly committed to helping realize gender equality, women’s empowerment and sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, with an emphasis on the most marginalized, particularly adolescent girls.

Equality for women and girls truly is progress for all and the key to a more sustainable future.

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and UNFPA Executive Director