Dr. Margaret Chan’s speech: 100th International Women’s Day

Dr Margaret Chan


Address to WHO staff on the occasion of
the 100th anniversary of International
Women’s Day

Geneva, Switzerland, 8 March 2011

Colleagues, ladies and gentlemen,

In 1968, the Philip Morris tobacco company introduced Virginia Slims. This was a cigarette designed, packaged, and aggressively marketed to young professional women.

The ads usually contrasted an old-fashioned sepia-tinted photo of household drudgery or women doing farm work with the image of a fashionable, liberated, young and, of course, very slim female smoker.

The ad campaign was fabulously successful and its slogan became famous: You’ve come a long way, baby.

Over the past century, as we commemorate this 100th International Women’s Day, girls and women have unquestionably come a long way.

In the medieval hierarchy, for example, the social order was basically like this: men came first, then the serfs and slaves, followed by animals, and last and certainly least, the women.


Today we are celebrating the many ways in which women have revolutionized health through their own collective efforts, and also in collaboration with men, increasingly on equal terms.

You will have a chance to view a photo essay that highlights some of these achievements, and some milestone improvements in the lives and health of women and girls over the past century.

Taking stock of achievements also means looking at barriers to further progress. And there are some big ones. For millions of women and girls, gender inequality blocks their freedom to exercise and realize their right to health.

What does this mean? Thirty years after adoption of the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, many girls and women are still denied equal opportunities to realize their rights, as recognized by law.

What this really means is appalling. Social exclusion, violence against women, honour killings, female genital mutilation, sex trafficking, restricted mobility, and forced early marriage.

It also means lack of fair access to health information, services, education and employment. In many countries, female employees are exploited with long hours, poor working conditions, low pay, and no benefits, including maternity leave. In fact, getting pregnant is a good way to lose a job.


Ladies and gentlemen,

Let us look at just a few statistics. Worldwide, more than 60 million girls have been forced into early marriage. Of the 780 million people who cannot read, more than 60% are women. Women fill two-thirds of the world’s working hours, but earn just 10% of the income.

Statistics document the high rates of pregnancy-related deaths, the disproportionately high number of women who are killed and victimized by wars, and the comparatively heavier burden of poverty on women.

Women are certainly much better off then they were during the Middle Ages. But nowhere in the world can women claim to have all the same rights and opportunities as men.

Any agenda aimed at improving the health of women must include an agenda for equal rights and opportunities. Improving the health of women is not just a medical or a public health problem. It is also a social problem, and solving that problem brings social rewards.

Healthy, educated, empowered women are better able to contribute to the economic productivity of their own generation, and to pass this progress on to the next generation.We know this from the evidence.

In societies where women and men are relatively equal in status, economies grow faster and the health and well-being of everyone, men, women, and children, improves.

Educated and empowered women and girls can make informed decisions about their own health.

They can read health information and participate in health education campaigns. They can recognize harmful practices and take a stand against them.

As I have said before, women are powerful agents of change. The Millennium Declaration says it much better.

“The promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women are effective ways to combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable.”


Ladies and gentlemen,

On this day of celebration, we can all welcome the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched last September by the UN Secretary-General. The strategy has attracted funding pledges amounting to $40 billion over the next five years.

WHO is facilitating a related Commission on Information and Accountability for Women’s and Children’s Health.

I have asked the commission to propose, within a six-month timeframe, expedient ways to improve the tracking of financial and other commitments from partners, the measurement of results, and the capacity of developing countries to collect and analyse basic health data.

Focusing on women’s and children’s health is a good way to start addressing some long-standing problems. Because the determinants of their health are so broad, solutions found for women and children are certain to benefit many other international health initiatives.


Ladies and gentlemen,

I am proud to celebrate this day of honour for all the world’s women and all the progress that has been made over the past century.

We have many people, men included, to thank for this progress.

This is a day to celebrate the work of people, from civil society organizations, to researchers and health professionals, to those of us working in international organizations.

Unfortunately, the empowerment of women can have a negative side, especially when the rising status of women is exploited through unethical marketing.

I began with Virginia Slims and have just mentioned researchers. The current issue of the Bulletin of WHO made headlines with a research report linking female empowerment with an increased prevalence of smoking among women.

In a shocking finding, the study demonstrated that in countries where women have higher empowerment, women’s smoking rates are higher than men’s. We cannot afford this kind of setback. Addiction to a deadly product has nothing to do with power.

As the study concluded, strong tobacco control measures are needed in countries where women are being increasingly empowered, and increasingly targeted by Big Tobacco. We have a powerful instrument, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, for doing so.

Yes, ladies. We have come a long way. We still have a long way to go.


But we will make it.

Thank you.



Leave a Comment