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Women have made major strides toward greater equality in Latin America and the Caribbean, but stronger advocacy and leadership are needed to address problems they continue to face in health and other areas, said a group of top women health leaders today at an event held at the Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.
The event was part of a series of activities surrounding the 51st Directing Council meeting of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), which is being held this week.
Dr. Michelle Bachelet, Executive Director of U.N. Women, noted that MDG-5, reduce maternal mortality, “is the one MDG that has advanced the least in our region and around the world.” She said it is now widely accepted that investing in women is not only an issue of human rights, it is also “the intelligent thing to do economically, politically and socially. So why doesn’t it happen?” She said making it happen is the major leadership challenge facing women in health and public policy today. “We have to empower women to make the strongest case possible that investing in women is the best thing governments can do, and we have to help ministers of health make this same case with their governments.”
WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan said that high levels of maternal mortality reflect “a failure of governments.” “We know how to prevent women from dying while giving birth. It’s a lack of political commitment, policies, and investments in the right areas. We need to get these issues out into the public, and we need to work with men who are enlightened to accomplish this,” she said.
Rocío García Gaytán, President of the Inter-American Commission of Women, said maternal mortality continues to be a major problem in the hemisphere despite the fact that it is almost completely preventable. She said that contrary to common belief, most maternal deaths take place in hospitals and are the result of a lack of proper training of medical personnel. “This problem should not exist in the second decade of this millennium,” she said.
PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses urged women to develop a leadership style that will effectively advocate for women’s top concerns, particularly social, economic and political progress.
“What is different when women lead?” Roses asked. “We need to support each other and identify what we should do that is different from male models. We must all work together—U.N. Women, the Council of Women World Leaders—to define feminine leadership and promote it.”
Canada’s Minister of International Cooperation, Beverly Oda, said progress on public policies for women “took many years” to develop in Canada. Today, gender reviews of legislation are now mandatory for legislation, and promotion of gender equality is an integral part of Canadian technical cooperation programs.
Vice-Minister of Health Dr. Silva Palma de Ruiz of Guatemala described a number of initiatives in her country that have been successful in improving women’s health and status. The include joint efforts involving the health ministry, the public prosecutor’s office, the national human rights ombudsman, and civil society organizations to reduce sexual violence by empowering women to report violence and by more aggressive prosecution of perpetrators. PAHO/WHO has supported these efforts with technical assistance in developing guides for care of victims of sexual violence. Other efforts include a new Family Planning Law and education of men and women as well as healthcare workers about women’s rights to use contraception.
Minister of Health Ann Peters of Grenada said that women of the Caribbean “are very vocal” and have had considerable success advocating for women’s health. In her own country, this has helped produce a highly effective comprehensive mother-child health program that includes strong community health services with well-trained midwives and good referral systems, breastfeeding-friendly hospitals, and universal voluntary testing of pregnant women for HIV. Thanks to these programs, Grenada has “no mother-to-child transmission of HIV and virtually no maternal mortality.”
Minister of Health Marcella Liburd of Saint Kitts and Nevis noted the importance of addressing the social determinants of women’s health. For example, in her country as elsewhere, the majority of people living in poverty are women. “We need to consider other aspects of women’s well-being,” she said, “including financial, social, and mental health.”
Paraguay’s Minister of Health, Dr. Esperanza Martinez, said it was important to address women’s concerns in an integral way. She described a new platform for discussing policies that affect women involving different government ministries, not just health. “Women need to participate as policymakers and also to influence policies from the outside,” she said.
Dr. Carmen Barroso, Western Hemisphere Director for the International Planned Parenthood Federation, said, “Civil society is ready to partner with ministries of health to advocate for more resources, legislation and promotion of women’s sexual and reproductive rights.”
The event was organized by the Council on Women World Leaders, PAHO/WHO, the Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program, Global Health Initiative, and Latin America Program.