Women from countries across the Southeast Asia Region, including Nepal, have played a vital role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic, and must continue to be empowered to help in the process of recovering from the pandemic and shaping a more equitable future, says the New Delhi-based World Health Organisation Regional Office for Southeast Asia.

According to the WHO, although women comprise up to 70 per cent of health professionals in the region and globally, they do not occupy a corresponding proportion of leadership positions. Rapid and sustained action is needed to elevate women's leadership and voices in the health sector and beyond, and at all stages of the pandemic response and recovery. "WHO continues to support all countries in the region to implement gender-sensitive pandemic response plans that empower women and girls, for example, by providing equitable access to testing and treatment for COVID-19 and by making specific efforts to maintain adequate resources and health and social support services that address gender-based violence," said Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh, WHO regional director for Southeast Asia, in a press release issued on the occasion of International Women's Day.

According to her, in some countries, helplines for survivors of gender-based violence registered an increase in calls by more than 30 per cent during the so-called lockdowns, underscoring the critical need for health and social support services to remain fully operational. Ongoing action is needed to maintain and expand access to quality sexual and reproductive health services throughout response, recovery and beyond.

Dr Kshetrapal Singh said, "Though most sexual and reproductive health services in the region have been operational for many months, the remaining gaps must be identified and filled to ensure that no woman or girl is left behind. Every woman and girl must feel comfortable and safe when accessing the services they require to stay healthy and well."

According to WHO, women-led organisations have a critical role to play in COVID-19 vaccination campaigns. Women have been at the fore of the region's many immunisation successes, from achieving and maintaining polio-free status to eliminating maternal and neonatal tetanus as a public health problem. They are central to the region's efforts to eliminate measles and rubella by 2023 and to end cervical cancer. The WHO has reiterated its commitment to uphold women's rights and to leverage the full potential of women's leadership in the health sector and beyond.

A version of this article appears in the print on March 08, 2021, of The Himalayan Times.