Celebrating International Women’s Day

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Even though women make up 70% of health and care sector workers worldwide, barely 25% occupy leadership positions. At an event to mark International Women’s Day, the Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), Jarbas Barbosa, called for greater support to women’s leadership while strengthening the health workforce, especially in the wake of negative impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We cannot achieve universal health or reach the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without equity in health and gender equality in the health sector,” Dr. Barbosa said during the High-Level Dialogue “Women’s Leadership in the Regional Health and Resilience Agenda,” organized by the Inter-American Task Force on Women’s Leadership with the support of the Government of Canada and under the coordination of the Inter-American Commission of Women of the Organization of American States (CIM/OAS).

During his intervention at the OAS headquarters, the PAHO Director highlighted the barriers faced by women health workers, which have repercussions not only on their economic and social well-being but also in their communities. Dr. Barbosa called for more representation of women in decision-making spaces and emphasized the importance of listening to their voices. “We must build more equitable, gender-equal, resilient and sustainable societies,” which implies “investing in women and their leadership,” he stressed.

A World Health Organization (WHO) gender and equity analysis of the global health and social work workforce reveals that leadership disparities between men and women are the result of stereotypes, discrimination, power imbalance and privilege. In addition, women’s disadvantages are multiplied when combined with factors such as race and class. In the healthcare sector, women occupy lower positions and receive lower salaries compared to men. This pay gap, at 26%, is higher than in other sectors.

PAHO is one of the ten United Nations organizations where women constitute more than 50% of the workforce. In addition, equity and gender equality are core values of the Organization, integrated into all policies, programs and technical cooperation work.

“At PAHO, we are committed to investing in women and we firmly believe that incorporating women’s and girls’ voices and perspectives in decision-making is essential for building resilient health systems and will positively impact health and development,” the PAHO Director said.

OAS Secretary-General, Luis Almagro, highlighted the Organization’s historic commitment to gender equality, manifested in its conventions and the Inter-American Democratic Charter. He also highlighted the pioneering role of the OAS in promoting gender-equality in the Americas over the past almost 100-years through the Inter-American Commission on Women. The Secretary-General also mentioned the normative framework built by the OAS in the area of women’s rights, which has contributed to thinking on a variety of issues such as parity in electoral processes, and greater representation of women in positions of power.

Despite this progress, Luis Almagro acknowledged that gender inequalities persist in several areas, including the right to health, which was particularly evident during the pandemic. He therefore stressed the need to “adopt transformative approaches” to modify “the social structures and norms that perpetuate gender discrimination.”

Dr. Rhonda Sealey-Thomas, PAHO Assistant Director, spoke during a panel on Women’s Participation and Leadership in the Regional Health Agenda: Opportunities and Challenges. During the panel, she emphasized the Organization’s commitment to increase the representation of women in leadership positions at PAHO and to ensure that women in the region are able to lead productive lives and reach their full potential.

For Dr. Sealey-Thomas, the Health Workforce Policy 2030 is crucial in seeking to incorporate a gender perspective into labor policies in the health sector. When it comes to access to health services for women, the Assistant Director mentioned PAHO’s work towards the elimination of cervical cancer and emphasized the importance of improving access to HPV testing and vaccination. “Through PAHO, countries can improve access to essential tools that can save women’s lives and give them the opportunity to live productive lives and assume positions of leadership,” she said.

The event was also attended by Alejandra Mora Mora, Executive Secretary of the CIM/OAS; Roopa Dhatt, Executive Director of Women in Global Health, and Christine Harmston, Director General of the Office of International Affairs of the Health Portfolio Public Health Agency of Canada, as well as other regional authorities and representatives of the health sector.

The Inter-American Task Force on Women’s Leadership is a platform composed of twelve international organizations committed to promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment through greater cooperation and synergies among institutions. Members of the Task Force are: CIM/OAS, IACHR, ECLAC, PAHO/WHO, ParlAmericas, UNDP, UN Women, the Development Bank of Latin America (CAF), the Ibero-American General Secretariat (SEGIB), IDEA International, CIWiL and CLADEM.

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