Babatunde Osotimehin

Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, a Nigerian physician and public health expert, was the former Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.

As a child I was always trying to save the world’s creatures, keeping my parents and siblings from stepping on insects or hurting our pets. So it must have surprised my father, a high school teacher, when one day I got into an argument with a girl my age and wound up hitting her.

I have made it my mission to help create a world where no girl or woman is ever subjected to violence, where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.

He pulled me away and told me I should always treat every girl as though she were my mother. That stopped me—I couldn’t conceive of hitting my mother, the center of authority in our house, the strong woman who ran a store that sold virtually everything and did some teaching herself while raising seven children. At that moment I understood something that has guided me ever since: every girl has the right to be as safe and to become as powerful and independent as my mother.

As the fourth executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, I have made it my mission to help create a world where no girl or woman is ever subjected to violence, where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. And I have come to see that universal access to reproductive health care is an essential first step.

I wanted from childhood to become a doctor, and in my southwestern Nigerian village of Ijebu-Igbo I was fascinated by the differences between human bodies and those of other creatures. But I was bored in class and neglected my studies. One teacher told me I would probably never finish high school. My parents moved me to a different school that gave me a fresh start, and that was another lesson – young people may take a long time to find their way and reach their potential. The job of adults is to offer them options.

What drives me now is that hunt for options — for the millions of couples who want to plan their families but have no access to contraceptives, for the millions at risk for HIV infection, for the millions more in poor regions who suffer from health conditions all but eradicated and forgotten in wealthy areas.

For example, I knew when I graduated from medical school in Nigeria in 1972 that I wanted to do both research and clinical practice, and was lucky enough to get advanced training in thyroid disease research in England and later in endocrinology in the United States. But when I returned to Nigeria, research in those fields seemed less important than helping the many women who came to our clinic suffering from infertility. What was causing this?

I helped organize a team of gynecologists, infectious disease specialists, anthropologists and sociologists to figure it out. We determined that a strain of Chlamydia, a sexually transmitted bacteria, was causing infections that were scarring women’s fallopian tubes and making conception difficult. Early diagnosis and treatment began to curb that problem, but it was clear that women often had no ability to make their own decisions to use modern family planning methods or seek medical care. They were not as free in their own lives as my mother had been. I realized that progress in public health cannot be based on research alone.

Similarly, when the AIDS epidemic began in the 1980s, our medical team already had the techniques and the networks in place to understand how the disease was spreading. We became part of the national response to HIV in the 1990s. As Director-General of Nigeria’s National Agency for Control of HIV/AIDS and then as Minister of Health, I advocated for access to the testing and treatment required to halt the pandemic. Women and young girls were (and remain) particularly vulnerable because they lacked the right to make the choices that could save their lives.

Now I have four grown daughters and four grandchildren, three of them girls, who every day give me greater impetus to help women and girls achieve these rights. I hope that UNFPA’s Programme of Essential Services for Women and Girls Subject to Violence will be a step in that direction: a four-year effort by our 150 country offices to create a global consensus on standards and guidelines to end violence against women and girls, and to build the capacity of service providers to address this pandemic.

It is clear to me that we human beings must act together, every individual to her or his fullest capacity, if we are to achieve an appropriate and sustainable position in nature’s continuum of life and history. In a world of seven billion people and counting, we need to count on each other.