Published 7 March 2023 in News
Ahead of March 8, International Women Rights Day, Focus 2030 intends to provide a snapshot of women’s rights around the world and to highlight the actions of those who are mobilized on a daily basis for gender equality and, more broadly, for the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Focus 2030 : You were appointed president and CEO in the summer of 2022, after being in leadership for one of the biggest advocacy organizations for girls’ education. In your view, what are major setback to progress on gender equality, and what’s one of the top actions that we can take to address the multiple crises the world is facing ?
Dr. Maliha Khan : The world has gone through a few really difficult years. People, including the world’s most vulnerable girls and women, are experiencing the catastrophic impacts multiple crises, including the pandemic, climate crises, war, and food insecurity. In parallel, anti-gender movements—set on controlling girls’ and women’s bodies, agency, and lives—are gaining ground in countries all over the world. In my home country, Pakistan, last year’s unprecedented climate crises fueled flooding set back progress on girls’ and women’s health and rights by a decade or more. Today, millions still lack access to the full suite of sexual and reproductive health services and rights, and are paying one of the highest possible prices, their health, because of a disaster that they didn’t cause. In neighboring Afghanistan, since the Taliban took control in 2021, girls and women have essentially been erased from public life and stripped of their rights.
In a few words : injustice is rife, and progress on gender equality is fragile. But this shouldn’t come as news to any of us.
Growing up, I witnessed first-hand what it looks like when girls and women are denied health care and bodily autonomy, education, economic opportunity, and a healthy environment. These denials have irreversible, long-term impacts that keep adolescent girls from realizing their full potential, impacting the rest of their lives, and, looking at the bigger picture, delaying the achievement of gender equality in communities and countries around the world. Still, I’m hopeful that feminists and feminist movements can and will turn the tide to overcome the many setbacks and challenges that exist on the road to a gender-equal world. It goes without saying that adolescent girls and women are experts in their own lives. With the right tools and resources, adolescent girls can and do take the lead on advancing gender equality—both for themselves and for their communities. While there’s no catch all solution to addressing the multiple, compounding challenges that the world is currently facing, securing the bodily autonomy of adolescent girls, and thus their future, is a good place to start. Making sure that adolescent girls have what they need to chart their own path and live up to their capabilities is one of the most impactful ways of responding to and withstanding setbacks to gender equality. The global feminist movement holds immense power to lead on this mission by shifting autonomy and decision-making into the hands of adolescent girls and women themselves, and by setting new agendas that address not just the symptoms, but also the root causes of gender inequality.
Focus 2030 : The Women Deliver Conference 2023 (WD2023) will take place from July 17 to 20, 2023 in Kigali, Rwanda under the theme « Spaces, Solidarity, and Solutions ». What can we expect from this conference, what is new compared to the previous Women Deliver Conferences ?
Dr. Maliha Khan : My hope is that the Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023) builds the solidarity we need for the road ahead and reminds us all of our collective power to drive progress. After several challenging years for girls and women, for gender equality advocates, and for the world at large, WD2023 is an incredibly important moment for feminists and the global feminist movement to come together to demand real, lasting change. It’s no secret that many norms, laws, and policies—in communities and countries around the world—are in need of reform. Some need to be scrapped altogether and are standing in the way of a just, gender-equal future.
Taking the time to learn from one another, act in close coordination, and shift power to marginalized and vulnerable populations—particularly adolescent girls—is vital to identifying what isn’t working and taking immediate action to change it.
Since 2007, Women Deliver has brought together hundreds of thousands of advocates from countries around the world for five Conferences. For WD2023, in line with our firm belief in the impact of collective action, we have doubled, even tripled, our efforts to ensure that this is the most inclusive, accessible, and diverse Conference to date.WD2023 has been co-created, together with the WD2023 Advisory Group, Youth Planning Committee, and input of over 4,000 people who participated in our Global Community Consultation. Part of this has also meant not waiting for July, when thousands will gather in person in Kigali, and online around the world, to get to work. In February, we kicked off the WD2023 Global Dialogue, which is supported by Regional Convening Partners in Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, Southern Africa, Asia, and the Pacific Region. The Global Dialogue provides an interactive space for advocates to come together during partner-run in-person, virtual, and hybrid events to begin discussing and taking action to address the gender equality issues that matter most to them in the lead up to the Conference.
As the first Women Deliver Conference held in Africa, WD2023 will support ongoing efforts across the continent around gender equality to secure equal access to power, dignity, health, justice, and rights. The Conference will create spaces for girls and women from the continent, and for feminists from around the world to network, develop skills, share knowledge, access funding opportunities, advocate directly to decision-makers, and participate in conversations that contribute to global agenda setting on gender equality.
Focus 2030 : Women Deliver is a leading advocate for gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), including for the integration of SRHR in universal health coverage (UHC). Can you tell us why sexual reproductive health services must be included in UHC and why SRHR is often overlooked and underfunded ? A high-level meeting on UHC will take place on the sidelines of this year’s UN general Assembly. How can we ensure SRHR will be integrated at the top of the agenda ?
Dr. Maliha Khan : Women Deliver unequivocally champions the need to achieve the full range of sexual and reproductive health and rights for all people, everywhere. There is mounting evidence that ensuring SRHR advances a person’s economic and social prospects, and advances gender equality. All people need sexual and reproductive (SRH) services and have different and changing SRH needs throughout their lives. Addressing these needs—from birth to old age—is crucial to achieving both universal health coverage (UHC) and gender equality.
For example, access to modern contraception and safe abortion, particularly for adolescent girls in their most formative years, reduces early pregnancy, saves lives, and enables young people to chart the path they want to take at school and in life. Comprehensive sexuality education supports informed decision-making, knowledge of sexually transmitted infections, and healthy relationships—all of which are key to reducing sexual and gender-based violence.
Still, SRH services remain overlooked and underfunded in many national health strategies and health benefits packages owing to a wide range of factors, including supply chain issues, a lack of resources or political will, deprioritization, and the dangerous idea that SRHR are a threat, rather than essential to progress. For example, a recent study carried out by Women Deliver and youth advocates in India, Kenya, and Nigeria found that throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, in many contexts, SRH has been sidelined and deemed non-essential in order to prioritize pandemic response. The U.S. Supreme Court’s recent reversal of Roe v. Wade is another good example of the dramatic and far-reaching consequences of when far-right actors and other conservative forces gain ground in their unrelenting campaign to control girls’ and women’s bodies.
One way of addressing these challenges is to ensure that SRHR is a fundamental part of universal health coverage design and implementation plans. To this end, in 2019, Women Deliver, along with partners, co-founded the Alliance for Universal Health Coverage and Gender Equality. The Alliance is the only civil space that champions the safeguarding of SRHR and gender equality in UHC. In 2019, governments agreed to the UN Political Declaration on UHC, the most comprehensive global agreement on health ever. This was a good start, but the agreement is a far cry from being fully implemented, and didn’t go far enough to secure comprehensive SRHR for all people, everywhere. The upcoming 2023 UN High-level Meeting on UHC is an important opportunity for governments to reach further—in words and in actions—to reinforce and deliver comprehensive SRH services as an essential part of UHC, while ensuring that women’s leadership and expertise are prioritized at every step of the process. With such a moment so close on the horizon, my hope is that advocates and governments will join forces to position SRHR as essential to progress toward UHC and every measure of development.
The opinions expressed in this interview are those of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Focus 2030.