This week the global health community suffered a great loss with the sudden passing of Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Under Secretary-General of the United Nations.
Dr. Osotimehin—a Nigerian-born doctor who dedicated his life to public service, was an ardent advocate for the Sustainable Development Goals, committed to preventing maternal deaths, meeting the need for modern family planning, eliminating harmful practices against women and girls, and making the case for the empowerment of women and girls as a powerful force for change. He was also a strong supporter of the role of the private sector in helping solve the world’s toughest problems, complementing the efforts of government and civil society.
I first met Dr. Osotimehin in Abuja in 2001 when he led Nigeria’s National Action Committee on AIDS. He later became Federal Minister of Health in Nigeria, before taking up his mandate as UNFPA Executive Director in 2011. I remember a compelling and well-received speech he gave at the Global Health Council’s annual conference that year, laying out his vision for UNFPA and the vital importance of women’s health for global health. I always found Babatunde to be thoughtful, passionate and deeply committed to health for all—a role model to emulate in working for the greater good.
An enduring legacy of Dr. Osotimehin’s work is his leadership in advocating for the right of women to control their reproductive and sexual health and to choose whether and when to become pregnant. As head of UNFPA, he led the implementation of the action plan around women’s health and rights adopted by 179 countries at the 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo. He boldly contributed his voice at a time when publicly taking a stand on these issues was not without risk or controversy. He was a leading advocate at Women Deliver, the seminal conference on the health, rights and well-being of girls and women and was a standout speaker at a multisectoral panel on strategies to advance women’s and girl’s health and rights on a global scale alongside Merck for Mothers, various country parliamentarians and advocates.
At a time when UNFPA’s very existence is threatened by potential volatility in donor support, we will sorely miss Babatunde Osotimehin’s strong and steadfast leadership in championing the rights of women and girls and keeping them front and center on the global health agenda.