Celebrating A #HeForShe: Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin
"In Dr. Babatunde we had a male feminist who walked the talk, and who deepened the discourse on the role of men and boys in the fights for gender equality and women’s empowerment. He was a true #HeforShe champion and a brother in our fight for gender equality and women’s empowerment…" — Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, UN Women Executive Director
A few weeks ago, I attended Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin’s funeral. Until his death, Dr. Osotimehin was the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). UNFPA is the vanguard agency for delivering a world where every pregnancy is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. While I have admired Dr. Osotimehin’s work the past few years, his funeral allowed me to deeply reflect on the magnitude of his advocacy for women. In today’s world where discourse on women’s rights is increasingly “on trend” in the development world, it is easy for anyone to throw around buzzwords about empowering girls and women for social and political capital. A precious few actually walk the gender equality talk. Dr. Osotimehin was undeniably one of the few.
Dr. Osotimehin’s legacy rests at the intersection of public health, youth empowerment and gender equality. He completed a medical degree at the University of Ibadan and a doctorate degree in medicine at the University of Birmingham. Dr. Osotimehin also earned a number of prestigious academic fellowships, including a Post-Doctoral Fellowship at Cornell Medical School in the USA. Despite the various opportunities accessible to Dr. Osotimehin in the West, he chose to return to Nigeria where he served as a lecturer, and eventually provost, at his alma mater, the University of Ibadan (College of Medicine). In 2008, Dr. Osotimehin transitioned from the world of academia, to the policy space, initially as the CEO of the National Agency for the Control of AIDs, and eventually as Nigeria’s Minister of Health.
As a policy maker, Dr. Osotimehin was dedicated to the idea that quality health care is an integral part of women’s rights. For example, during his tenure as the Minister of Health, Nigeria had the largest malaria disease burden in Africa. Dr. Osotimehin’s advocacy secured $1 billion from different sources to combat the disease. From these funds, he ensured free medication was provided to pregnant women suffering from malaria. Due to his various contributions to the health sector (including contributing to 90% of the progress made to eradicate polio worldwide 2009), Dr. Osotimehin received one of the country’s highest honors: Officer of the Order of the Niger (OON).
As the Executive Director of UNFPA, the ‘Honorary Woman’—as he preferred to call himself—actively advocated three major goals: zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet demand for family planning and the elimination of harmful practices against women and girls. Under his leadership, UNFPA placed special emphasis on adolescent girls. He boldly tackled sensitive issues like female genital mutilation and sexual and reproductive health; and championed education and decision making power for women and girls.
Dr. Osotimehin was key to ensuring the adoption of the Motevideo Consensus on Population and Development in 2013: a wide-ranging agreement that amongst other goals aimed to increase access to sexual and reproductive rights, achieve gender equality, empower youth; and to recognize the correlation between population issues and development.
In situations of humanitarian crises, women and girls are some of the most vulnerable segments of the populations and often lack access to reproductive and other health care services. Dr. Osotimehin recognized these vulnerabilities, and under his direction, UNFPA took tangible steps to ensure women and girl’s health rights were protected during large-scale disasters. During the Ebola outbreak for example, UNFPA provided emergency reproductive health kits and clean delivery kits in affected countries. Following the outbreak, UNFPA began an extensive program to improve midwifery skills and services in West Africa. Similarly, after the World Health Organization declared Zika a public health emergency in 2016, UNFPA ensured access to voluntary family planning and other forms of reproductive health care in affected regions.
Dr. Osotimehin’s interest in women’s rights was broad and far-reaching. During his tenure, UNFPA partnered with UN Women to launch The Joint Global Programme on Essential Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence: a four-year programme that aims to improve the quality of and access to essential services for women and girls who have experienced violence; and to reach global consensus on guidelines for responding to gender-based violence.
But Dr. Osotimehin was not just an advocate for women in his public life: getting to hear from some of the women closest to him, solidified my respect for his progressive stance on women. In a legacy for her father, Omolola Arokodare (nee Osotimehin), noted: “I remember the many arguments between my Mum and Dad about his unconventional parenting and he would always say proudly: I am raising my daughter for life—not for marriage only.” Speaking about the relationship between her father and mother, Mrs. Arokodare added: “Dad was responsible for spotting all the adverts of the jobs she would later undertake…such was his love for his woman! He wanted her to soar and excel…Their intellectual banter was unparalleled; he reveled in the fact that she had a voice; an opinion and allowed her to be herself.”
It is said the measure of a man is what he said, what he did, and what others said about him: on all fronts Dr. Osotimehin was indeed a #HeForShe and will be greatly missed. He is without a doubt one of the most progressive Nigerian males I have every come across, and I am profoundly inspired by his legacy.