UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell's remarks at the 76th World Health Assembly Roundtable Event: Protecting and Investing in the Health and Care Workforce: An Action-oriented Agenda for the Second Half of the SDGs
As prepared for delivery
GENEVA/NEW YORK, 23 May 2023 - "Excellencies, colleagues … it is good to be with you for this important discussion.
"Women are the heart and soul of the health care workforce. They account for 70 per cent of all health workers, 90 per cent of nurses and midwives and nearly 75 per cent of community health workers. They are responsible for improving health and survival outcomes for millions of people each day. And they are critical to accelerating progress towards universal access to health care and achieving the SDGs.
"Yet women health care workers continue to face challenges and barriers that undermine their efforts to provide care.
"First among these is gender inequality. Women are pillars of health care delivery, but in many countries, girls’ and women’s access to quality education, training and learning tools remains woefully inadequate.
"Adequate compensation for women health care workers is also a serious problem. On average, women are paid 24 per cent less than their male counterparts.
"And women health workers are more likely to experience violence, sexual abuse, exploitation and harassment at work. Many face unsafe working conditions with a lack of adequate infection control measures or personal protective equipment.
"Quite simply, we cannot achieve universal health care and the SDGs more broadly if we do not address gender inequities in the health workforce.
"To start, governments must make educating, empowering and protecting women and girls a top priority. Doing so will help to strengthen communities, improve productivity and boost economies. And it will help to increase the number of women health workers in communities of need.
"We must also do a far better job of recruiting and retaining women workers in the health sector. This means compensating women healthcare workers with equal pay for equal work. And it means ensuring all health workers can do their jobs safely and free from violence, exploitation and sexual harassment.
"Governments and the private sector should step up with the financing needed to ensure that women health workers have consistent access to the supplies and support needed to do their jobs. This includes medical supplies and equipment, PPE, clean water, electricity, transportation, digital tools, technical guidance, and mental and physical health support.
"Meeting these standards will make health systems more resilient and effective. It will also help to erode gender-related discrimination by opening the door for more women and girls to serve in a range of health care roles … like nurses, doctors, administrators or policymakers. And as more women gain visibility and influence in health systems, there is a greater likelihood that gender barriers in other sectors will be overcome.
"Critically, we must also strengthen support for women community health workers. They are uniquely placed to save and improve lives in the hardest-to-reach and most marginalized communities – places we must reach to achieve the SDGs.
"Across the globe, community health workers serve as important sources of trusted knowledge in their communities … as providers of integrated primary health care … and as advocates for local priorities and needs. In many contexts, they are the only healthcare providers for vulnerable populations, especially in humanitarian settings where their own safety may be at risk.
"Over the past year, I have met with community health workers in the Sahel and Horn of Africa and seen their incredible work firsthand. This includes their heroic efforts to reverse the backsliding in children’s vaccine coverage – a consequence of the pandemic’s devastating impact on health systems and service delivery.
"As the United Nations agency with the largest multi-sectoral workforce on the ground, UNICEF is playing a unique role in taking this agenda forward across both humanitarian and development contexts.
"We are supporting secondary education and skills development for adolescent girls. And we are working with partners to expand apprenticeship opportunities for girls within the health sector … an initiative we hope will make careers in health care a promising option for young women – including as community health workers.
"More broadly, UNICEF supports and trains community health workers to provide essential services, prevent the spread of diseases and respond to humanitarian crises. We also work with governments and other development organizations to elevate community health in national agendas. Our approach integrates service delivery across multiple sectors – including health and nutrition, early childhood development, social protection, water, sanitation and hygiene.
"But this is not enough. Excellencies, the bottom line is that in order to reach the SDGs, we need to support and invest in community health workers … and we need to support and invest in girls and women. This means expanding access to quality education and skills training … ensuring equal pay for equal work … and providing consistent funds for the tools needed to do the job. In this way, we can build healthier societies and make the SDGs a reality.