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POPULATION: 'Time to Shelve the ICPD Plan of Action’

Zofeen Ebrahim interviews Muslim youth advocate IMANE KHACHANI

BERLIN, Sep 16 2009 (IPS) - At least 1.5 billion people aged 10 to 25 — the largest generation of young people in history — will need sexual and reproductive health services, says the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Globally, there are about 33 million people living with HIV, reports the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS or UNAIDS, with 2.7 million new infections in 2007, most of which are sexually transmitted infections.

Every year, more than half a million women die in pregnancy or childbirth, including 67,000 from unsafe abortion. Additionally, six million suffer injury, illness, or disability.

Little wonder then that 27-year old Imane Khachani, a Moroccan doctor and member of the international Youth Coalition for Sexual and Reproductive Rights, believes the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) Plan of Action needs to be shelved.

The ICPD, held in Cairo, was considered a groundbreaking effort for shifting population policy discussions away from simply slowing population growth to enhancing individual health and rights while focusing on social development.

Fifteen years on, the realities of 2009 are different from those of 1994, asserts Khachani, who was among the 100 young people from around the world who took part in the UNFPA-organised forum on sexual and reproductive health and rights, held in early September in Berlin, where she sat down with IPS.

She spoke about the urgent need to view young people’s sexuality from a rights-based approach and urged the ICPD advocates to "look beyond" the 1994 programme of action.

Khachani shared her candid thoughts with IPS on the way forward after the Cairo consensus and why youth need to be involved in policy discussions on sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR).

IPS: Fifteen years down the road, has the Cairo consensus become redundant?

IMANE KHACHANI: Cairo could not respond to all population concerns. I think now, 15 years later, it’s crucial for us not to say ‘let’s follow up on Cairo’.

Cairo was a starting point for advocacy to policy makers to fully address the sexual and reproductive health and rights of people, including — and I am insisting — young people.

IPS: Are you saying we should just dump the ICPD Plan of Action?

IK: What I am saying is that we should not stop there, but go beyond this document, beyond Cairo. 2015 is just around the corner; what will we do after that? Will we need another Cairo? And how is this other Cairo going to be? Is it going to be a repetition of 1994? Are we going to be able to address the issues that were missed?

IPS: As a youth advocate, what would be a wish list of issues that should be included in a new ICPD-like document?

IK: I will just focus on what I think youth consider crucial. Many experiences have shown that although countries are committed to investing in young people’s SRH, they very often do it in a vertical way, with thematic, isolated initiatives, nothing comprehensive.

We also need to ask what we mean today by ‘comprehensive sexuality education and youth- friendly services’…. There is a perception that giving a lot of (medical) information is what it means to be comprehensive.

But educating young people … doesn’t have to be the disease approach; it has to show sexuality as a normal thing, as something that has to be enjoyed, as something that people must (take) pleasure (in) while experiencing it, and build the capacity of young people not to think of sex within just the context of protection.

They have to do that too, it’s vital. But they have to look at sexuality from a more human perspective, addressing love, needs, relationships, etc.

IPS: How do we tackle sexuality, sex and pleasure in a traditional Muslim society?

IK: I think we have inherited some of the taboos that exist in our society from culture and not from religion.

Islam has clearly recognized the role of sexuality in providing pleasure, acknowledged it and encouraged it. However, it has done so within the institution of marriage and with certain constraints, but the idea of pleasure is there.

IPS: How should sexuality be addressed?

IK: I think the question needs to be thrown back to the young people when ministers of health and education are trying to work out education curricula and health programmes. If they want to know how to serve young people’s education and healthcare needs, they need to have young people with them on board.

IPS: Many would argue that such an approach would encourage the young people to talk openly about sex and even promote promiscuity?

IK: I think finger pointing at people promoting sexual education as promoting promiscuity will always exist because sexuality is linked to power and it’s a way to control people’s bodies and people’s lives.

IPS: How would you go around this problem?

IK: I think involving progressive faith-based organizations could be a very interesting entry point. We in Muslim countries live and experience Islam differently. We also have different religious realities.

In Morocco we have successfully involved the imams (prayer leaders), who have been trained to speak about HIV infections in Friday prayers. A lot of imams were very receptive and in a society where traditions are so deeply rooted in Islamic traditions it’s important to have imams take it up. It helps to release the taboos.

IPS: Has the youth movement coalesced and taken a more structured shape? Are you happy with the kind of mobilization it has taken with respect to SRHR?

IK: There has been amazing progress in terms of youth presence and inviting (them) to the (discussion) table.

It wouldn’t surprise anybody 10 years ago if a conference were to be held on SRHR and no youth were invited. If you look back at the statistics, the number of young people at the ICPD was almost negligible. Today it’s almost impossible to think that such a conference or initiative, or inter governmental process would take place if youth were not present.

IPS: Do you feel at times that youth are invited as mere tokenism?

IK: Yes, it’s there. In many settings and venues youth are invited to tick a box, to say there were youth representatives, but youth voices are not really heard or taken into account; but it’s a process.

IPS: Do governments also pay lip service to youth involvement?

IK: The idea of youth participation has gained acceptance in many countries but has yet to become institutionalized.

In Morocco, for example, a governmental multi-sectoral plan to address young people’s development with special focus on SRHR was implemented three years ago. It involved young people in a very consistent way, asking them to reflect on their realities, to put forward concrete recommendations.

IPS: What about the issue of sexual orientation?

IK: One of the trickiest issues in a Muslim society is to address sexual orientation. The various interpretations have condemned sexual differences. The only form of relationship recognised is that between a man and a woman.

But it is a reality, nevertheless, that we have gay people, transgenders, lesbians — and we cannot continue ignoring their needs.

If you want to ask me how to address their needs I would simply tell you I really don’t know. It’s an extremely sensitive issue and I don’t think open, strong, aggressive advocacy would help. It has to be done slowly, sensitively. But the way we have to address this in our Muslim society has to be different from other societies because we have different realities and different traditions.

I belong to an organisation that mainly focuses on international advocacy at the international level. We come from different countries with different realities so the reality of a gay man living in the Middle East is different from those of someone living in Latin America. There are many similarities but there are a lot of differences too.

A starting point in Muslim countries, in general, would be recognition of their existence. Once we recognise that these people exist, then we will recognise that they have different realities and different needs. We don’t want to be societies that exclude some of (our own) members.

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