International Women’s Day 2021

Written by Dr Lorraine Greaves, Past President of International Network of Women Europe

A profound shock to our societies and economies, the COVID-19 pandemic underscores society’s reliance on women both on the front line and at home, while simultaneously exposing structural inequalities across every sphere, from health to the economy, security to social protection’. 

UN Women

Three short years ago in Cape Town at the World Conference on Tobacco or Health, International Women’s Day was dedicated to highlighting the impact of women on tobacco control and the impact of tobacco on women and girls. It was a day of celebration and optimism, as an entire conference focused on issues of health equity, gender, science and tobacco policy.  Key speakers from around the world opened a conference that was gender balanced and for the first time, highlighted a stream of content on health equity. 

On this International Women’s Day, much has changed. The status of the world’s women is even more precarious than usual, and progress of the last few decades is threatened as we deal with the impact of COVID-19. Across the world, women are experiencing serious threats to our mental and physical health from significant increases in domestic violence, caring burdens and caregiver stress, job losses and economic instability. At the same time, women are disproportionately represented among health care workers and facing the direct threat of COVID-19 exposure.  

These new pressures and realities frame the many pre-existing threat to women from tobacco use, tobacco industry exploitation and tobacco farming and the consistent lack of sex and gender specific research, tobacco treatment, health promotion or policy in response. For women whose health is being destroyed by COVID-19, tobacco use complicates treatment and undermines hopes for recovery. For women whose economic lives have been shattered by the pandemic, the lure of jobs in tobacco farming and the false advertising of the tobacco industry add a new layer to the ongoing exploitation of the world’s most vulnerable groups.   

The International Network of Women Against Tobacco (INWAT) is a 30 year old network of women and men who have long cared about the links between tobacco use and gender equity. The calls we made in Cape Town in 2018 for more commitment from men and mainstream tobacco control agencies to understanding and acting on tobacco and women and women’s equality are even more crucial today.  

As COVID-19 has highlighted, the issues that generally concern tobacco control organizations are in fact interlinked with women’s rights, human rights, economic security, violence against women and mental health movements. Denying these links is no longer an option. The world’s women are depending on action and success in fore-fronting women’s issues, gender equity and sex and gender science in all that we do going forward.  

IWD celebrations often involve men and generate respect for women’s contributions to public life across the world. This year, it is absolutely crucial for men and mainstream tobacco control to step up and act–locally, regionally, or internationally–to call for funding, science, policy and legislation that not only prevents women’s tobacco use, abuses of women’s rights, and exploitation, but takes us a lot closer to gender equity. This requires active choices and positive actions by men and tobacco control organizations. That means making efforts to generate health and gender equity at the same time, in mandates, processes and content of all that is planned in tobacco control. Most of the world’s population is waiting. 

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