Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

U.N. director: 'Women will change the world'

From Isha Sesay, CNN
updated 10:31 AM EST, Tue November 20, 2012
  • Babatunde Osotimehin is the executive director of U.N. Population Fund
  • The international development agency promotes health and equal opportunity
  • Osotimehin wants more women to have access to reproductive health services

African Voices is a weekly show that highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. Follow the team on Twitter.

(CNN) -- When Babatunde Osotimehin last year became the head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) -- the international development agency promoting female rights -- the news didn't go down too well with many women working in the field.

After his appointment Osotimehin was told that some female ambassadors at the U.N. were upset that a man had been made head of the agency. But he was determined to put their minds at ease.

"We had lunch with them [female ambassadors] and they asked me, 'so, justify this position,'" remembers Osotimehin. "I spoke and after that they stood and said 'OK, we're satisfied with that, from today you are an honorary woman.' I carry that title well."

Read: Too many mothers still dying

Osotimehin: A global voice for women

A tireless advocate of female rights, Osotimehin has had a long career caring for women. He qualified as a doctor in 1972 and went on to teach at the University of Ibadan, in his native Nigeria, before heading Nigeria's National Agency for the Control of AIDS and becoming the country's health minister.

U.N. chief on his toughest challenge

Today, as executive director of the UNFPA, Osotimehin, who is also the U.N.'s under-secretary general, is focused on gender equality and reducing poverty, helping hundreds of millions in developing countries.

Some 20 months into his new role, Osotimehin says he wants the agency to reach as many women and girls around the world as possible, improving their access to reproductive and educational services.

"There are an estimate of 222 million women in the developing world who are in union, who want family planning and they are not getting it," he says, citing a shortage of funding and cultural obstacles among the reasons for the lack of universal access to reproductive services.

According to a UNFPA report released last week, meeting the family planning needs of those 222 million women would have resulted in 26 million fewer abortions in the developing world this year.

Osotimehin speaks passionately to world leaders about the agency's concerns and works closely with women around the world to make sure they have choices and know their rights.

"I think it's a job that actually was made for me and I say that with all sense of responsibility," explains Osotimehin. "The natural thing to do was now to do something that actually gives me a global sense, given all the experience I have and the natural work that I'd been able to establish.

"And I think linking back to what I did, practicing or as a minister of the HIV field, it was all about reproductive health to reproductive rights, gender, women's health and I think it just all fits."

Read: Energy chief on a mission to end poverty

But above all, Osotimehin, a father of five, says what needs to be changed is the status of women around the world.

"I think that for me is where the problem really is -- how we value women and girls in our societies," he says. "I think that we need to do far more than just legislation or policies, we need to confront these issues to make a difference."

Watch video: Osotimehin: a global voice for women

Osotimehin credits his mother for imparting the value of equality to him and shaping his views from an an early age.

He says: "My mother was an entrepreneur, a mother, a wife, a community leader and she was very strong but she believed in equity of social justice, so I saw her as a role model."

Osotimehin adds that whether it's though his current work at the UNFPA or any other posts in the future, he will always fight for women's empowerment.

"I truly believe that women will change the world," he says. "I say that with all seriousness -- as a teacher in a medical school, my best students were women.

"As physicians they are the best and, really, when you look at different aspects of life, even peace-building, women they build better peace. So, let's give them a chance."

Part of complete coverage on
African Voices
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon July 7, 2014
Australia's Tim Cahill appeals to the linesman after a disallowed goal during the Group B match between Chile and Australia at Arena Pantanal on June 13, 2014 in Cuiaba, Brazil.
Kenya's national football team may not have made it to the World Cup Finals in Brazil -- but one man will be there for his African nation.
updated 6:44 AM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
African contemporary art is thriving, says author Chibundu Onuzo.
updated 8:39 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Mulenga Kapwepwe
Mulenga Kapwepwe has single-handedly created an explosion of arts in Zambia.
updated 8:30 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Wegkruipertjie, a short film playing at the Durban International Festival
From Ghanaian rom-coms to documentaries celebrating 20 years of South African democracy, festival-goers are spoiled for choice at this year's Durban Film Fest.
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Tue June 10, 2014
Kalibala with one of the children she supports.
In 2010, Ugandan journalist Gladys Kalibala embarked on a mission to bring attention to her country's lost and abandoned children.
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Tue June 3, 2014
Sunset at Camps Bay with one of Andrew van de Merwe.
A trip to the beach is usually for lounging in the sun. But for Andrew van de Merwe, the sand stretches in front of him as an enormous blank canvas.
updated 8:40 AM EDT, Tue June 17, 2014
Esther Mbabazi, Rwanda's first female pilot
Esther Mbabazi wheels her bag towards the airstairs of the Boeing 737 sitting quietly on the tarmac at Kigali International Airport.
updated 7:22 AM EDT, Tue May 20, 2014
Jun 1978: Filbert Bayi #42 of Tanzania rounds the bend during the 5000 Metre event at the AAA Championships in Crystal Palace, London.
He's smashed world records and revolutionized running during his career. And yet the name of Filbert Bayi has largely been forgotten.
updated 8:49 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Nelson Mandela
Adrian Steirn and the 21 ICONS team have captured intimate portraits of some of South Africa's most celebrated. Here he reveals the story behind the photographs.
updated 5:26 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Explore a series of artistic street portraits designed to pay tribute to the people of the Sudanese capital.
updated 11:57 AM EDT, Tue August 5, 2014
A growing list of popular African authors have been steadily picking up steam --and fans -- across the globe over the last several years.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Wed May 28, 2014
David Kinjah njau and Davidson Kamau kihagi of Kenya in action during stage 2 of the 2007 Absa Cape Epic Mountain Bike stage race.
He's one of Kenya's premier cyclists but David Kinjah's better known as the man that trained Tour de France champion Chris Froome.
updated 5:42 AM EDT, Mon May 19, 2014
The President and founder of the organisation 'Femmes Africa Solidarite' (Women Africa Solidarity), Bineta Diop.
Senegalese human rights activist Bineta Diop reveals why she is willing to risk her life to help women in Africa.
Each week African Voices brings you inspiring and compelling profiles of Africans across the continent and around the world.