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Parliamentarians Track Progress on Reproductive Rights

PARIS, May 21 2012 (IPS) - Have women around the world become more empowered in their reproductive health and rights over the past 18 years? This is one of the questions that some 300 parliamentarians from around the world will be examining when they meet in Istanbul, Turkey, this week for the Fifth International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the Implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) programme of action.

At the event, on May 24 and 25, MPs from six continents will discuss “the progress the world’s governments are making in their efforts to protect and empower women in their reproductive health and rights: a promise they made at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo”, says the European Parliamentary Forum (EPF), which is co-organising the event.

“This will be the biggest gathering of parliamentarians on population and development issues probably since 1994,” EPF Secretary Neil Datta told IPS. “Everyone from Norway to Mozambique, from Panama to Papua New Guinea is included, and from all different political horizons: the Left, Centre and Right.”

These are politicians who “believe that the protection of women’s reproductive health and rights is a human right that is vital for development,” he added.

The EPF says that the parliamentarians’ conference has taken place regularly over the past 10 years, but the Istanbul meeting is taking place at a crucial time, with the approach of deadlines that were set for completing the ICPD Programme of Action (2014) and the Millennium Development Goals (2015).

“The international community must act now to ensure that women’s reproductive health and rights remain high on the development agenda in the new framework that replaces them,” the group says.

The conference comes amid some positive news, as the World Health Organisation and other United Nations agencies released a report last week showing that the number of women dying of pregnancy and childbirth related complications has almost halved in 20 years.

The study ‘Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2010’, shows that from 1990 to 2010, the annual number of maternal deaths fell from more than 543,000 to 287,000 – a drop of 47 percent, according to the agencies.

But the UN adds that while “substantial progress has been achieved in almost all regions, many countries particularly in sub-Saharan Africa will fail to reach the Millennium Development Goal target of reducing maternal death by 75 percent from 1990 to 2015.”

During their previous conference, in Paris last year, the EPF and their counterparts emphasised that focusing on girls and women is also a way to manage population growth in a world of 7 billion people, a number predicted to grow to 9 billion by 2050.

“It’s good to have children but we need to have children that we can feed, educate and keep in good health,” Maria-Goretti Agaleoue Adoua, a Burkina Faso parliamentarian told IPS then. “We have to invest in ourselves and get partners interested in the subject to help us as well.”

The Istanbul conference, co-organised with the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), will provide a means for MPs “to find support and forge common strategies to ensure that population and development issues remain a priority for their governments,” the EPF says.

The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a report earlier this month stating that “social and legal discrimination against women remains a major obstacle to economic development in emerging and developing countries.”

The OECD’s Social Institutions and Gender Index, produced by the organisation’s Development Centre, said that in some countries, like Niger or Mali, more than half of girls between 15 and 19 are married, leading to early childbirth, for instance.

“Legal reforms, economic incentives and community mobilisation are critical to rectifying social discrimination and economic injustice” against women and girls, said Carlos Alvarez, deputy director of the Development Centre.

The report says that women’s “reproductive autonomy is limited”, with one in five women on average having no access to family planning. It adds that despite new laws, attitudes perpetuating violence against women persist, “with some 50 percent of the women themselves believing that domestic violence is justified in certain circumstances.”

Several countries, however, have made progress in reducing discrimination against women since the Index was first released in 2009, even within the “most unequal” regions, the OECD says.

“In Rwanda and South Africa, for example, the introduction of political quotas has led to a greater representation of women in politics. South Africa and Morocco are among the countries where the social and legal status of women improved considerably over the past years,” the organisation says.

The OECD will address some of the inequality issues itself in the coming days when it launches its Gender Initiative during OECD week, attended by UN Women’s executive director Michelle Bachelet and Jordan’s Queen Rania Al Abdullah, among others.

“Opportunities for women are not equal in education, in the labour market, in business, or politics. This is a waste for the individual, but is also an obstacle to realise the full potential of our economies,” said OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría.

On the subject of women and health, Datta of the European Parliamentary Forum says that over the past decade, the international community has not focused enough on funding for reproductive health, especially family planning.

“As a result of this, funds for reproductive health and family planning are nowhere near sufficient for keeping up with the needs of an increasing number of couples of reproductive age in developing countries. It has been calculated that there are more than 215 million women who are not able to access the modern forms of contraception that they want,” the EPF says.

Another meeting, the Family Planning Summit, being organised by the UNFPA and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on Jul. 11 (World Population Day) will seek to achieve some solutions. The aim of that event is to “find the will, the money and the way to provide proper access to family planning information, services and supplies for an additional 120 million women in the world’s poorest countries, by 2020.”

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