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To strengthen women’s leadership, we must strengthen their rights and choices in a post-COVID world

UNFPA Asia-Pacific Regional Director Bjorn Andersson issues an urgent message on International Women’s Day.

A year ago, as the COVID-19 pandemic began to engulf the world, we at the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, warned of dangerous consequences for the health, human rights and wellbeing of women and girls.

Amongst the most concerning predictions: a greater number of unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions and unsafe births; and a sharp escalation in gender-based violence and harmful practices including child marriage and female genital mutilation – potentially reversing hard-won gains which have improved the lives of women and girls in recent decades.

Our forecasts have unfortunately come true in a number of countries in Asia-Pacific region and globally. The severe disruptions of the COVID-19 crisis to health services, pandemic lockdowns and other movement restrictions, and economic deprivation have combined to retrench previous progress.

As we mark International Women’s Day 2021, we face a more urgent need than ever to invest in women and women’s leadership. in strengthening gender equality and women’s empowerment. This is a key commitment the nations of the world have made as part of attaining the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The time frame for achieving this is less than a decade away.  Our collective challenge is to ensure we regain lost ground.

Still, despite the setbacks COVID-19 has wrought, we have also witnessed women’s strong, inspiring leadership in responding to the crisis and mitigating the harms.

Family planning service providers such as Kabita Bhandari have trekked across remote reaches of far-western Nepal, visiting rural outposts amid pandemic quarantines to convey critical information and distribute contraceptives, enabling choices for women and couples.

Psychosocial health counsellors such as Anjuman Hossain in Bangladesh have ensured that Rohingya women in the sprawling refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar can benefit from interventions for survivors of gender-based violence, needed even more-so in the midst of the pandemic.

Midwives such as Niloufar Ghassemi in Iran have solved issues regarding shortages of personal protective equipment and other challenges, putting their own lives on the line to bring new lives into this world.

These and other examples underscore that to strengthen women’s leadership, we must acknowledge – and act upon - a basic truth. To enhance women’s ability to lead, and realize their potential in the fullest sense, they must first be empowered to be fully in charge of their own lives and bodies.

This dictates that women be able to exercise rights and choices as embodied in the landmark Programme of Action that stemmed from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo where 179 countries agreed, for the very first time, that human rights and individual choice lie at the heart of sustainable development.

The Programme of Action placed a particular focus on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, emphasizing that women and girls must be free to shape their own lives - including when or if to marry, or have children, and with whom.

The commitment by governments and civil society partners to the Programme of Action was further reinforced at the ICPD25 Nairobi Summit in November 2019. Made explicit was that achieving the SDGs, including SDG3, Good Health and Well-being, and SDG5, Gender Equality, requires accelerating the attainment of ICPD.

ICPD has not only underscored that women’s rights are human rights, it has also been instrumental in helping build a bridge connecting health and human rights.

Over the years since Cairo other human rights resolutions and frameworks have built upon this connection. This has led to governments investing more in reducing maternal deaths through strengthened midwifery and other essential services; and expanding family planning programmes including access to contraceptives. Countries are also tackling the challenge to eliminate gender-based violence, including establishing fact-based data to inform both legislation and concrete action plans.

However, International Women’s Day 2021 confronts the unprecedented harsh reality that in just several months the pandemic has rapidly undermined years of progress made towards ICPD and the SDGs, with women and girls bearing the brunt.

Increases in maternal and newborn deaths, unintended pregnancies and gender-based violence have added to the significant socioeconomic toll of the pandemic. Governments must urgently review, invest in and strengthen policies that can effectively address these issues, transforming legislation on paper to tangible, impactful implementation in real life.

And, as the stories of Kabita, Anjuman and Niloufar illustrate, we must fully capitalize and build upon the lessons learned and best practices acquired while responding to the pandemic.

Let’s use International Women’s Day 2021 as a call to action.

We must urgently regain the momentum and progress COVID-19 has robbed from women and girls in our societies. We must also individually choose to challenge and call out gender bias and inequality, whenever and wherever we see it – including in ourselves.

In doing so, we also recommit to a world where a woman’s ability to freely lead her own life, and build her ability to lead and support others, is grounded in genuine gender equality and human rights, truly leaving no one behind.