No country has yet attained complete gender parity in leadership as many obstacles still block women’s path towards it, says Dr Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of United Nations Population Funds (UNFPA).
In a statement to commemorate International Women’s Day on 8 March, she said that one of the most fundamental obstacles faced by women is the lack of bodily autonomy.
“Many women cannot make basic decisions about their bodies, such as whether to have sexual relations or not, to use contraceptives or not, or even make their own health-care choices,” Dr Kanem said.
She highlighted that no woman should be denied these choices, yet it can be seen how crises exacerbate existing barriers that hinder the ability of women to exercise bodily autonomy — sexual and reproductive health services were shuttered or scaled back across the globe, and gender-based violence skyrocketed during this pandemic.
“A woman who cannot realise bodily autonomy may face compounding barriers to equality throughout her life, undermining the range of rights and choices required to become a leader,” she explained.
“That is why we must ensure women both gain skills and opportunities to lead, and can build on a firm foundation of bodily autonomy,” she added.
Dr Kanem acknowledged the efforts of many women who have kept entire societies going, sustaining health systems as the majority of front-line workers, and courageously managing extra responsibilities at home in caring for the ill as well as children out of school.
She lauded these women for having kept open shelters for survivors of violence against women and scaled mountains, literally, to distribute contraceptives throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
On this International Women’s Day celebrating all women, particularly those leading the charge for equality, she encouraged women and girls who dream of leadership to rise to the challenge.
“Do not wait. It is your right, and the world needs you now more than ever. I believe that we will get there, and that women, collectively, will change our world for the better,” she urged.
She pointed out that societies are more prosperous, peace is more durable, and all of society benefits where there is gender equality.
“Women themselves have offered vivid, unforgettable testaments to the value of their leadership. These should be celebrated and replicated, all the way to a world where every woman is able to govern her body and her life, where women lead as equals, as is their right,” she concluded.