Meeting Global Challenges: Healthy Women, Healthy World
Keynote Address, IWHC's Third Annual Gala, Delivered by United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan
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Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen, dear friends,
Nane and I are delighted to be here. I am moved that you have chosen to honour me this evening. Above all, I want to pay tribute to the International Women's Health Coalition for the wonderful work it is doing around the globe.
The IWHC and its partners provide indispensable leadership for the health and rights of girls and women worldwide. If there were more pioneers like you, the world would be a better place. And I am not at all surprised—because I have found this to be true in so many places—that leadership like this is coming above all from women.
You are a shining example of the increasingly crucial role that civil society plays in the work to improve the lives of people everywhere. In the past few decades, this role has grown beyond all recognition—as civil society groups have become advocates, shapers of policy, and allies of Governments in the work on the ground. Today, for the United Nations to succeed in many of its endeavours, partnership with civil society is not an option—it is a necessity.
Let me remind you that we have just entered the tenth anniversary year of the historic International Conference on Population and Development, held under UN auspices in Cairo in 1994. As you know, that conference forged an extraordinary consensus on actions to ensure that reproductive health is recognized as a human right. It also reached agreement on a wide range of actions to achieve gender equality, development, as well as economic and social justice.
Six years later, the Cairo consensus helped pave the way for the Millennium Development Goals—adopted by all the world's countries as a blueprint for building better lives for people everywhere in the 21st century.
The adoption of the MDGs, as we call them, was a seminal event in the history of the United Nations. These eight commitments range from halving extreme poverty to halting the spread of HIV/AIDS, from reducing child mortality to eliminating gender disparity in education—all by the target date of 2015. They represent a set of simple but powerful objectives that every man and woman in the street, from New York to New Delhi, from Lima to Luanda, can easily understand and support.
In other words, the MDGs are a call to which every one of us can and should respond. And the International Women's Health Coalition has responded eloquently. You are an exceptionally active and constructive partner in the work to translate the Millennium Development Goals into reality. You have understood that one of the most effective ways to do that is through the education and empowerment of girls and women.
Study after study has taught us that there is no tool for development more effective than the education of girls and the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity, lower infant and maternal mortality, or improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. When women are fully involved, the benefits can be seen immediately: families are healthier; they are better fed; their income, savings, and reinvestment go up. And what is true of families is true of communities and, eventually, whole countries.
And yet, out of more than 860 million illiterate adults in the world today, two-thirds are women. Out of more than 100 million children who are not in school, the majority are girls.
At the same time, more than half a million women still die every year from preventable conditions and injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth. And in many parts of the world, HIV/AIDS is now spreading more rapidly among women than among men. It is a shocking fact, and one of which I as an African man feel ashamed, that a girl in sub-Saharan Africa is six times more likely to be infected than a boy. There are many reasons, ranging from abuse and coercion by older men and men having several partners, to lack of awareness and empowerment among girls and women.
Ladies and gentlemen,
From issues of morality to issues of mortality, girls and women pay a higher price. When poverty and other constraints force parents to choose which children to send to school, girls are more likely to be kept at home. When the family income needs to be supplemented, girls are more likely to be sent out to work. Even when girls do go to school, their attendance and performance suffer because they will often have to do housework at the expense of homework. When girls become pregnant, school policies force them to drop out. And when catastrophe strikes—whether in the form of illness or conflict, displacement or hardship—women and girls, from 65 to five years old, are more likely to shoulder the burden of keeping family and household together.
Nothing illustrates their burden more amply than the impact of HIV/AIDS. Girls are more likely than boys to care for a sick family member and help keep the household running. Deprived of basic schooling, they are denied information about how to protect themselves against the virus. Without the benefits of an education, they risk being forced into early sexual relations, and thereby becoming infected. Thus they pay, many times over, the deadly price of not getting an education.
But by the same token, education is a critical tool in helping us to break the vicious cycle. The key to all the locks that keep this cycle going—from AIDS to poverty to inequality—lies in education for all and the empowerment of women.
It is often said that education empowers girls by building up their confidence and enabling them to make informed decisions about their lives. For those of us who attend benefits such as these, that statement may seem to be about university degrees, income, or career fulfilment. But for most of the world's girls, it is about something much more fundamental. It is about escaping the trap of child labour, or the perils of going into the labour of childbirth while still a child yourself; about managing pregnancies so that they do not threaten your health, your livelihood or even your life; about ensuring that your children, in their turn, are guaranteed their right to education.
It is about being able to earn an income when women before you earned none; about protecting yourself against violence and enjoying rights which women before you never knew they had; about taking part in economic and political decision-making; finally, it is about educating your children to do the same, and their children after them. It is about ending a spiral of poverty and impotence which previously seemed to have no end. It is about achieving a deep social revolution that will give more power to women, and transform relations between women and men at all levels of society.
That must be our goal for the coming generation. There are now 1.2 billion adolescents in the world-the largest number of young girls and boys the world has ever known. In the developing world, more than 40 per cent of the population is under age 20. The shape of the future lies in the decisions these young people make. Their faith in themselves, their respect for one another, their access to accurate, comprehensive information and education, including information on sexual health and access to comprehensive health services, will determine not only their own well-being, but that of the world.
This revolution cannot be imposed from outside. But it can be encouraged, through support for leadership figures that are emerging in every type of society. That encouragement must be our mission.
Let me give you an example of the kind of leadership we need. There was a beautiful young woman Nane and I met in Ethiopia who had been diagnosed with HIV one week after her 21st birthday. Two years on, she had made it her full-time mission to go out and talk in schools about prevention. Nane told her that young people would probably listen more to her than to me. She immediately agreed. We will never forget what she told us next: that it was important for young people to see how healthy she looked—meaning you cannot rely on looks to tell you whether a potential partner has AIDS or not.
Look at the women in a district in Tamil Nadu, India, where 15 years ago the literacy rate was well below the national average. While learning how to read and write, these women wanted to teach women in other, more remote villages the same. How to reach them? They learnt to ride bicycles. Within three years, the district was declared fully literate.
Or look at the Girls' Power Initiative in Nigeria, which works towards the political and social empowerment of Nigerian women. With its brother organization, it educates and enlightens adolescent girls—and boys—about health and rights.
As I said at the outset, I am not at all surprised that leadership like that is most often to be found among women. And—as some of you may have heard me say before—when it comes to solving many of the problems of this world, I believe in girl power.
It is among young people like these that the heroes and heroines of our age are to be found. It is our job to furnish them with hope. I am deeply grateful to you, members and supporters of the International Women's Health Coalition, for doing just that, and for being such wonderful partners of the United Nations family.
Thank you very much.