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Women deserve better. The WHO could lead the way

‘The world is ripe for new models of leadership that value and prioritise equity, compassion, and diversity.’

(Kylee Pedersen/TNH)

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In times of crisis, it is often women and children who are hit the hardest. The 2018-2020 Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo was one extraordinarily tragic example of this.

Some members of the very response teams dispatched by the World Health Organization (WHO) to contain what was the world’s second largest outbreak of the highly lethal virus ended up being accused of committing egregious sexual abuse of women and girls. The shocking allegations, including more than 80 cases implicating WHO employees in 21 cases, were first reported on by The New Humanitarian and the Thomson Reuters Foundation in 2020 and then investigated at the request of the WHO director-general.

This week, the WHO Executive Board discussed recommendations by the Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee (IOAC) on actions the WHO should take to address organisational shortcomings tied to the allegations. The IOAC’s report noted that “The disproportionate number of men as compared to women in decision-making and leadership roles within WHO was identified by staff as one of the reasons for the dismissive behaviour towards complaints…The lack of gender parity in leadership positions continues to be particularly acute in emergency operations.”

As a former Head of Government and Minister of Health, and as former women leaders in UN organisations, we have seen first-hand what happens when women are excluded from decision-making tables and are denied the authority to make and implement policies, in particular those around prioritising and protecting the most vulnerable. Women’s expertise, perspectives, and leadership are critical in affecting change and achieving results. 

The sad truth is that gender-based violence is rampant during crises, but widespread in times of peace. We, alongside countless others, have called for decades on the leaders and staff in UN agencies, governments, NGOs, civil society organisations, and philanthropies to protect women and girls from this most horrendous violation of their human rights. 

The world is ripe for new models of leadership that value and prioritise equity, compassion, and diversity. The WHO and her sister UN agencies have the opportunity and responsibility not just to hold their staff accountable for the most basic standards of human behaviour, but to be leaders, setting and modelling a new leadership ethic that cares not only about what is achieved, but how it is achieved and who achieves it. 

We have seen example after example of the difference women’s leadership has made during crises. Take the COVID-19 pandemic, where many among the 21 women heads of state and government have been applauded for their leadership, successfully deploying rapid response policies that resulted in lower numbers of cases, hospitalisations, and fatalities. Not only have most countries with women-led governments generally responded to the crisis effectively, but so have countries with greater gender parity in decision-making bodies for healthcare, social support, and economic recovery. 

When women are part of leadership, they influence which policy issues are considered and the solutions that are proposed, often working across party lines and with an increased focus on families and communities. When women hold 30 percent or more of legislature seats, governance is more egalitarian and democratic, and more likely to produce lasting peace agreements and less conflict. Furthermore, increasing the diversity of leadership teams by elevating more women leaders and other underrepresented groups has led to improvements in innovation, communication, collaborative relationships, change management, and so much more. Companies with more diverse management teams -- across a number of dimensions, including gender, national origin, and more – are more innovative and perform better financially. Simply put, women’s leadership matters.

But it’s not just the responsibility of women to prevent abuse and protect the vulnerable. We need leaders of all genders to do better. More diversity throughout all levels of leadership is a critical step – but it is just the first step. To provide the leadership we need, especially in times of crisis, leaders must understand –and respond to – the differing needs of women and men.

The WHO, and every organisation that has failed to protect the vulnerable from sexual exploitation, abuse, and harassment must foster transformative leadership that is inclusive and responsive. The actions they take now to address their failures, or perhaps leapfrog forward with even greater ambition to transform their institutions, will be judged by future generations.

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