The International Women’s Health Coalition held its annual gala on April 8, 2013 at The Pierre in New York City. IWHC President Françoise Girard discussed the Coalition’s current work in Congress and at the United Nations, as well as its partnerships with organizations around the world. Girard also introduced UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin and the Joan B. Dunlop Award. The following are her remarks at the gala.

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As I look around the room, I feel so fortunate and so heartened to see all of you, friends and colleagues who are here to support the International Women’s Health Coalition. We’re very, very fortunate to have you working with us, working for us in our corner, in our camp. Your support is what helps us do our work of promoting and protecting the health and human rights of women and girls around the world. And as you know and as you heard from Christiane this is crucial work now more than ever.

We at the Coalition work closely with more than 50 groups in 20 countries around the world, in Latin America, in Africa, in Asia, in the Middle East. We give these groups the tools, the training, and the funding they need in their own country to ensure that their own government does the right thing, to ensure their governments adopt the right laws, pass the right budgets, spend the money where it should be spent, and provide quality health services to women and girls. In turn, these amazing women educate us. They tell us about the realities faced by women and girls in their countries and we use that knowledge and that expertise to inform and shape our advocacy at a global level. It’s that combination which I think is unique about the International Women’s Health Coalition. It’s our collaboration with local activists connected with our work with global policymakers that enable us to bring the voices of some of the most marginalized and silenced women and girls straight into the highest halls of power, whether in New York at the United Nations or in Washington, D.C.

One of those voices belongs to Mairamou, whom you may have noticed on the beautiful photograph that we presented to Christiane before dinner. This is not a stock photo, she is one of our partners. Mairamou lives in the extreme north region of Cameroun in West Africa. When she was 12 years old she was forced into a marriage by her father to one of his friends, who was then in his late 40s. In the region where she lives, in northern Cameroun, nearly 80 percent of teenage girls are forced into early marriages. But, thankfully she’s pretty wily, speaking of feminine wiles, and she escaped her marriage. And with the help of IWHC, she and other young girls started a support group for themselves and for other young girls. And today, they work in their community to prevent other young girls from being forced into marriage. They empower survivors of forced marriage to tell their stories, to demand change and to live freely and independently. 

At the same time that we work with local communities to fight child marriage, we also are putting this issue on the global agenda. For example, IWHC is one of the key groups working in Washington, D.C. to put an end to child marriage. And thanks to our advocacy last month, Congress, when it renewed the Violence Against Women Act, you may have heard about this, for the first time ever required the U.S. government as part of its foreign policy to work to end child marriage and adopt a concrete strategy. Given the constant gridlock we have in Congress, you know this was a major achievement. 

The International Women’s Health Coalition began nearly 30 years ago, thanks in no small part to the pioneering leadership of our first president, Joan Dunlop. This evening we’re very, very proud to present the first annual Joan B. Dunlop Award. And we’re especially proud to present it to someone like Adenike Esiet, who is a courageous activist who has worked for more than 20 years in her own country, Nigeria, to preserve and protect the health of boys and girls.

And I’m especially happy that we have Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin to present the award to Adenike. Babatunde has been a long time champion for the health and human rights of young people and women. He is currently the executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund. Before that, he was the Minister of Health of Nigeria, and also the director of the National HIV/AIDS Council of Nigeria. As a doctor himself, Babatunde knows what women and girls need in places like Nigeria and around the world. Babatunde and Joan worked together for many years. They worked together particularly to mobilize women at the Cairo conference in 1994 which you heard about. And also at the Beijing Conference on Women in 1995. These conferences, as you know, made women’s reproductive health and reproductive rights a centerpiece of development policy. And it’s a legacy that we at the Coalition uphold and defend every single day. 

So, ladies and gentlemen, please join me in welcoming Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.