Asia-Pacific, Development & Aid, Headlines, Health, Population

RIGHTS-PAKISTAN: ‘The Problem Is We All Work in Silos’

Zofeen Ebrahim interviews NAFIS SADIK, special adviser to the U.N. Secretary General and special envoy for HIV and AIDS in Asia

BERLIN, Sep 10 2009 (IPS) - As secretary-general of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in September 1994, Nafis Sadik had described this groundbreaking event as a "quantum leap" in reinforcing commitments to addressing infant and maternal mortality, education and reproductive health and family planning.

Nafis Sadik (right) Credit: Global NGO Forum

Nafis Sadik (right) Credit: Global NGO Forum

The programme of action that came out of that historic global summit – the ‘Cairo Consensus’ that has today reached its 15th year — had "the potential to change the world", the former head of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) had predicted at the time.

Sadik spoke to IPS on the sidelines of a Sep 2-4 forum here that took stock of progress in implementing the Cairo agenda, called ‘Global Partners in Action: NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development – Invest in Health, Rights and the Future’.

She also talked about how sexual and reproductive health and rights has been undermined by extremism and militancy in her native Pakistan, and what can be done to breath new life into efforts to counter these.

IPS: In the Pakistani context, do you think extremism has been a death blow for sexual and reproductive health and rights?

NAFIS SADIK: I think the whole Taliban movement is very detrimental to the progress of the sexual and reproductive health and rights movement. They deny women and girls the right to education, which is fundamental. They are also opposed to family planning and sexual and reproductive health and rights and want women to be in bondage, not to be seen or heard. This is totally against Islamic concepts.

IPS: What can the government do to address this extremist assault?

NS: Governments can do so much. To my mind, one way to counteract this onslaught is for all sections of society to form an alliance. Today, there is a movement against, what is known as Talibanisation. The non-governmental organisations, civil society and the corporate sector must forge forces with the government.

The way to go about it is to work at the community level. Firstly, because of insidious poverty, the people are compelled to send the children to madrasah (religious seminaries). We have to counteract this. We must find the source from where these madrasah are financed and stop this. At the same time, we need to improve our own school systems. We must get our primary schools in order.

Secondly, we need to find champions from within the local communities, both men and women who will talk about the real and right aspects of Islam. Our society is very traditional and people believe everything told to them. Some of the theologians are distorting religion. So we must concentrate on finding an intellectual group, in sufficient mass, countering that.

IPS: Where do we get such a learned, progressive mass of people?

NS: There are many movements now to educate men and women scholars that aim at enlightening them. It’s not a question of getting them; it’s about changing minds. That’s the change in society that we need. I understand it can’t be done overnight, and cannot certainly be done by governments. But I think civil society as a whole, and I don’t mean just NGOs, can start to play an active role — by which I mean boldly and courageously talking, speaking, speaking out against such atrocities.

IPS: You think there is political will for this?

NS: If they are scared enough, and it seems they (government) are now, then now is a good time. I think there will be some leaders emerging from all that is going on in Pakistan today.

IPS: Would it be prudent to use Islam as a way to get back at extremism?

NS: Yes, I think we also have to invoke religion because, in my opinion, we cannot take on religion. You can never win if you take on religion. We do not choose our religion and yet we defend it to death. We have the right to choose, but the right to choose religion is denied. I myself am a born Muslim and I defend Islam. It goes against my grain to give in that there are some things in Islam that I don’t actually agree with.

IPS: Can women be prayer leaders? For if they can, perhaps they can begin to have a far more influencing role in society than their male counterparts?

NS: Islam allows women to be leaders. In our society, which is really quite backward-thinking, that’s like a major shift in attitude, to ask women to lead. I think we should make incremental changes. I would take that on when the time is right. I wouldn’t take it up as a first thing, as you might upset the whole movement to change.

IPS: Do you find that there has been any progress in Pakistan with regard to sexual and reproductive health and rights since the Cairo conference of 1994?

NS: I think that there has been a lot of progress in the world, not just in Pakistan. Women are much more knowledgeable. Many, without being empowered, try to empower themselves. There are many brave women in Pakistan.

IPS: What are your views about the recent passage of the domestic violence bill in the lower House?

NS: Now that’s the starting point. I am very happy with changes and one can build on these changes and get voices from the community. The only problem is (that) in Pakistan, we all work in silos. These voices remain scattered… . If only we could have them together. In that way, the success of the ICPD was that many different disciplines came together under the same umbrella.

IPS: Do you think the Millennium Development Goals have taken away the thunder from the ICPD?

NS: I don’t think so. All the issues that we worked on at the ICPD have been incorporated in the MDGs. Every goal of the MDGs has come from the ICPD. The education for all, gender equality, maternal mortality reduction, infant mortality, all were in the ICPD. Five of the eight goals have come straight from the ICPD. The MDGs have caught the attention of all the world governments. This is something powerful and we need them.

IPS: But then the ICPD is now redundant?

NS: ICPD forms the underpinnings of the MDGs. These goals haven’t come out of the air. These have come out based on a series of recommendations from conferences on development, population, environment. The one that was omitted on reproductive health for all has now been put back. It was omitted by certain governments, especially the United States. It’s now back as a target and a very strong one.

IPS: You were one of the lead authors of the Cairo Consensus, which people here have termed a "visionary" document. Now on its 15th year, how do you see it?

NS: I think we have made a lot of progress because reproductive health is accepted everywhere. Sexual health is talked about but not necessarily accepted, but that in itself is a big change. And the linkage of sexual and reproductive health and rights to women’s empowerment and gender equality is a very strong element and that has been totally accepted.

The fact that you can’t have demographic goals from the top down without acknowledging individual choices, especially the choice for women, is a strong part of the ICPD and that is totally accepted in all societies. Coercive policies and top-down imposition of contraception have really gone now.

IPS: So there is reason to celebrate the ICPD at 15?

NS: Part reason to celebrate. I am disappointed that maternal mortality stays the same, that access to family planning is still not universal and those that need them don’t necessarily have them.

I am disappointed that while laws have changed as far as women are concerned, the societal attitude and mindset is still slow (to follow). Nevertheless, I am optimistic and we have made progress. You know, issues like rape, incest were hidden, private matters but are now out in the open. I am encouraged that there are more young leaders now, much more involved in their own future — and this brings hope.

IPS: So what can we do in next five years?

NS: Maybe we can join forces again. I think NGOs can be more powerful voices if they didn’t work in silos. I think the underlying need is the empowerment of women — that is a common theme.

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