Statement of the Regional Director on the centenary of International Women’s Day

“Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathways for decent work for women”

08 March 2011

International Women’s Day is held every year to celebrate women’s achievements and to remind us of the continuing challenge of overcoming the economic, political, social and health barriers to full gender equality. This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is “Equal access to education, training and science and technology: Pathways for decent work for women”.

We can celebrate many accomplishments over the last 100 years in Europe. Some of our countries have attained the highest level of gender equality in the world. Women’s health has benefited from tremendous social and technological improvements such as access to education and work, access to modern contraception and safe abortion (where legal), and the prevention and treatment of breast and cervical cancer.

Despite these advances in reproductive health, unchanged gender norms and values continue to have a negative impact on women’s health. In addition, the increase in smoking rates increases women’s exposure to risk factors, leading to noncommunicable diseases such as cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. Gender-based violence is still prevalent in all countries of the WHO European Region and, while great efforts have been made to acknowledge this as a crime and a public health problem, much still remains to be done.

Returning to our theme this year, no country in our Region can claim the equal participation of women and men in the labour market. Laws and policies may grant equality but in practice this does not happen. Further, education, training and decent work are recognized as basic determinants of health, but gender norms and values may hamper women’s access and therefore jeopardize their opportunities to be healthy.

We have the evidence for how the unequal distribution of these determinants and opportunities to be healthy contributes to social and economic inequalities among women. Despite higher educational attainment in Europe, women still earn less than men, they form the majority of the unemployed, have lower pensions, do more part-time work and perform the greater portion of unpaid care work. In 2010, no single parliament in Europe showed equal representation of women and men. In the European Union, women earned an average of 15% less per hour than men and these discrepancies are even greater in the eastern part of our Region.

Socioeconomic disadvantage, low income, low or subordinate social status, responsibility for the care of others, and gender-based violence are specific risk factors for the common mental disorders that disproportionately affect women.

The use of a gender analysis of health, the higher participation of women in health research and health practice, and the growing number of advocates of gender as a key determinant of health are changing the way we inform health policy and programmes.

It is not all bad news, however: examples of progress abound. Europe is on track to achieve Millennium Development Goal 3, which aims to reduce gender-based discrimination by promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in critical areas such as secondary and tertiary education, gainful and non-agricultural employment, and political office. Most girls now receive an education, particularly at primary level, and more women are now more likely to run businesses or participate in government.

Nevertheless, inequalities are high between and within countries. Gender stereotyping and discrimination remain common in all cultures and communities. Early and forced marriage, so-called “honour killing”, and the sexual abuse and trafficking of young women and girls are disturbingly prevalent and, in some countries, on the rise.

Women and girls’ educational attainment has been correlated with decreased fertility and smoking rates, increased age of marriage, adequate birth spacing and greater adherence to health recommendations.Yet in some countries of our Region and within some communities, multiple household responsibilities, including water collection, combined with household poverty and social norms that prioritize boys, deny many girls and young women the chance to undergo and complete primary and secondary levels of education. These girls and young women are further deprived of the health benefits education provides. Lower levels of education in many contexts have also been found to increase the risk of sexual and gender-based violence.

When women benefit fully from the right to employment, they are more likely to benefit from protective legislation, access to employer-based health insurance and other measures of social protection. In many settings, women are overrepresented in agricultural labour, which tends to be unpaid, undervalued and often confined to informal market activities. When equal opportunities for formal, gainful employment are provided in any sector, women generate earnings for themselves and their households. Such economic empowerment often increases their social status, leading to reduced social isolation and exclusion. Concretely, it also means that women are more likely to have a say in the use of household resources, including household spending on health.

WHO/Europe has identified gender equality as a key cross-cutting priority that needs to be addressed throughout policies and programmes. This International Day provides a good opportunity to celebrate the improvements in women’s lives over the past century and to renew our commitment to building on these achievements. We still have some way to go, but there are solid grounds for concluding that we are making and can continue to make real progress in improving the opportunities for all women in our Region.