The World Health Organization announced multiple commitments to drive change for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls in all their diversity at the Generation Equality Forum, held last week in Paris. The WHO commitments focused on ending gender-based violence; advancing sexual and reproductive health and rights; and supporting health workers as well as feminist movements and leadership. These commitments shape a progressive and transformative blueprint for advancing gender equality, health equity, human rights and the empowerment of women and girls globally.
The Forum, marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action on Women, came at a critical moment, with COVID-19 having exacerbated existing gender inequalities. WHO led in two key areas of the Forum: the Action Coalition on Gender-Based Violence (co-led with UN Women and other partners) and the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative between France, Women in Global Health and WHO.
Recognizing the health sector has an important role to play in preventing and responding to gender-based violence against women and girls, WHO committed to:
- Increasing the number of countries with clinical protocols focusing on a comprehensive, survivor-centred, empathetic health response for women and girls subjected to violence;
- Working with partners to scale up evidence-based prevention of violence against women and girls in 25 countries with high prevalence, guided by the RESPECT framework;
- Developing and supporting the uptake by health providers, policy makers and managers of a training course on health responses to violence against women and girls through the WHO Academy;
- Establishing a comprehensive database to monitor implementation of the Global Action Plan and regularly publishing prevalence estimates from the Global Database;
- Working with sister UN agencies to scale up the availability of essential, multi-sectoral and survivor-centred services with functional referral mechanisms, for women and girls in all their diversity, in at least 25 high prevalence countries;
- Supporting the implementation of the Global Plan of Action on health systems’ response to violence against women and girls.
WHO will partner with Wellspring, Ford Foundation, UN Women and the Government of the United Kingdom, in the launch of the Shared Agenda Advocacy Accelerator (the Accelerator) to advocate for increasing resources for preventing violence against women and girls. WHO will support the implementation of the International Labour Organization Convention No. 190 on Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work including by providing training to staff on a new internal policy, Preventing and Addressing Abusive Conduct.
WHO also committed to investing in the evidence base for sexual and reproductive health and rights, including delivering comprehensive sexuality education outside school settings; improving access to quality and rights-based family planning in 14 middle-income countries
Together with UNFPA and UNICEF, WHO committed to work to end harmful practices like female genital mutilation and child, early and forced marriages. The health sector will be supported to end medicalization of female genital mutilation and provide quality health services to women and girls living with female genital mutilation and married girls.
At a high-level event focusing on the Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative, WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reiterated WHO’s commitment to advocating for decent and safe work conditions for all health and care workers, especially women. Several countries and organizations announced commitments towards the four pillars of the Initiative: gender equal leadership; equal pay; protection against sexual harassment and violence; decent and safe working conditions. The Gender Equal Health and Care Workforce Initiative will convene again during the United Nations General Assembly in September 2021.
WHO along with other UN agencies declared solidarity with and support to feminist movements and women human rights defenders, committing to expand an open, safe and inclusive civic space for their work. This commitment is closely linked to the UN Secretary-General’s Call to Action for Human Rights and the recently published UN Guidance on Promoting and Protecting Civic Space. WHO will:
- Update its gender policy, strategy and roadmap;
- Open specific internship opportunities for individuals with feminist leadership experience;
- Promote civil society participation in health systems, COVID-19 response and recovery activities;
- Promote and encourage gender parity in World Health Assembly delegations, WHO panels and advisory groups; and
- Facilitate menstrual hygiene and promote awareness.
WHO, as part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, also committed to support countries to address gender-related barriers to polio vaccination, collect and analyse sex-disaggregated data to ensure girls and boys are reached equally, and to increase women’s meaningful participation and decision-making across all levels of the programme.
WHO has committed to accelerating and scaling up its efforts to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. An organization-wide task team, headed by a Director reporting to the Director-General, will bring together WHO’s accountability functions that deal with these issues within WHO programmes and operations the field. The aim is to increase policy coherence, address gaps, and ensure that implementation of policy and procedures has sufficient impact to protect women, their families and communities.
There will be a priority focus on how allegations and cases are managed, and practical measures on how emergency and programmatic operations can safeguard people more effectively from sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment.
The Task Team will work with partners on the ground to empower communities to prevent and respond to sexual exploitation, abuse and harassment. They will also prioritize engagement with the UN systems, international partners and external experts to move this important work forward. Some of the activities currently being scaled up include awareness raising in communities; engaging female and male community focal points to empower women to be alert to and use community-based complaint mechanisms safely; and measures to strengthen survivor-based services for women through the health system and in the community.