Global Health and Diplomacy International Women's Day Luncheon

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
The Washington Club
Washington, DC
March 8, 2012

Thank you for such a warm welcome. I especially want to thank Dr. Leonard Lichtenfeld from the American Cancer Society, Jill Sheffield from Women Deliver, and Joanne Manrique from Global Health and Diplomacy for hosting this event.

I am honored to be here today with all of you, including Ambassadors from Kenya and Tanzania, and the distinguished Ambassador from the African Union.

Before I begin, I want to recognize and commend the women recognized this year by Women Deliver. I know many of those names on that list, including my boss, Secretary Clinton, and she thanks you for the honor.

This is a really good day to represent the Obama Administration. Of course, all days are good to work for President Obama and Secretary Clinton, but this one gives me particular pride. The President and Secretary Clinton have elevated the role and rights of women to unprecedented heights in our foreign policy and programming – from diplomacy to development to defense. We know that a society which lifts up women is more likely to have strong economic growth and a stable political system. And in places where women’s rights are denied, poverty and political oppression often precede and follow. As we pursue a more peaceful, stable world, women are the cornerstone of our progress. Not only on International Women’s Day, but every day.

As the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, I oversee the United States’ foreign policy that relates to the protection of individuals and the fostering of just societies. At the foundation of this mandate is the promotion and protection of the health of women and young people.

We must ensure that all women and children are given the opportunity to lead healthy lives – because only then can they achieve their potential as agents of change in the local communities, their countries, and the world.

Today I want to talk about three specific areas that we are prioritizing in the realm of women’s health and its contribution to civilian security: maternal health, sexual and reproductive health, and gender based violence.

First, I should start within the frame of the Global Health Initiative, or GHI. The GHI aims to equalize gender imbalances related to health, to promote the empowerment of women and girls, and to improve overall health outcomes for women, their families, and their communities. The GHI is investing in efforts to reduce maternal and child mortality, secure access to family planning and prevent the spread of HIV, among other goals -- all of which aim to address and respond to the unique health needs of women and girls.

GHI also focuses on building and strengthening health systems in-country. I want to emphasize this point, because I think it’s significant: we are supporting long-term, systemic changes that remove the economic, cultural, social, and legal barriers to quality health care services for women.

Our goal is for women and children to have access to an integrated package of essential health services – from sexual and reproductive health care and HIV/AIDS services, to skilled attendants at childbirth, to immunization services and basic nutrition. And the initiative seeks to increase the participation of women and girls in health care decision-making, especially as it pertains to reproductive health and family planning.

Additionally, more than two billion women are under the age of 24 and entering their childbearing years. Yet, 215 million women around the world who want to prevent pregnancy lack access to contraception and family planning.

These numbers call on us to think globally. In particular, we need to promote interventions and innovations that are going to lift the world’s women, and with them, entire populations.

I believe that real change comes with education and choice. But these are unfortunately unrealized luxuries to many women around the world. When a woman does not have access to reproductive health and family planning services, she is more likely to have a child at a younger age and suffer from complications during child birth – potentially harming the life of her child and her own well-being.

Nearly half the women in the developing world deliver babies without a nurse, a midwife, or a doctor. More than 350,000 women die each year due to complications related to pregnancy and child birth – the majority of those deaths are preventable. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths occur among the poorest populations of the developing world.

Despite these daunting numbers, we have made gains and are seeing hope for progress. The unacceptably high rate of preventable maternal mortality once considered intractable, has been reduced dramatically – by 34 percent globally between 1990 and 2008. In addition, we have forged some excellent partnerships and we continue to make progress in the challenging issues that accompany women’s health. This is an accomplishment that we must celebrate.

We have excellent partnerships with the United Nation’s Population Fund (UNFPA), the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others. Together, we are working to tackle some of the most challenging issues of our time. UNFPA works to improve access to sexual and reproductive health, and promote gender equality, combating gender-based violence, and help governments and policy makers to better understand and consider the impact of population on development.

Our alliances with the Gates Foundation, as well as with the development agencies of the United Kingdom, and Australia, promotes access to reproductive health care, and family planning in South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa, two places where we are not on track to eliminate maternal mortality in time to meet the millennium development goal.

The Obama Administration recognizes that family planning and sexual and reproductive health services are not only a necessary part of women’s basic healthcare, they are vital to a woman’s ability to achieve personal development and thus be a more productive member of her society. We acknowledge that no matter what, family planning is an important aspect of any functioning society.

Finally, I want to take a moment to talk about violence against women, which manifests in many forms – but in every form is an assault not just to women but to society as a whole, and is a violation of human rights. Whether through domestic violence, rape, sexual assault, or harmful traditional practices, one in every three women in the world has experienced sexual, physical, emotional or other abuse in her lifetime. When women and girls are expected to be subservient, their behavior in relation to their health – including reproductive health – is negatively affected at all stages of the life cycle.

We must support efforts that ensure that the voices of women are valued and their lives are protected – this includes engaging all parties – women, and men at local and international levels, in a dialogue about preventing gender-based violence and its consequences. We must also recognize that in order to make progress on global health goals and advance and protect women’s health, we must actively engage men and boys. This is critical in all of our work.

In closing, I would call on each of us to use this day to recommit to advancing the connection between women’s health and security – both at home and around the world. What we need in most places is systemic change and cultural shifts—neither of which happen overnight. But if each of us stays committed to doing our part, and making our own voices heard, we will see the gradual change that leads to global impact. So thank you for all that you are doing.