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Reproductive Rights Have a Rocky Ride

STOCKHOLM, Apr 25 2014 (IPS) - For policy makers and activists working for sexual and reproductive health and rights, it’s been a long road since the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo in 1994.

Back then, the abortion issue pitted groups against one another, even as frustrated activists tried to keep the spotlight on human rights and development. Still, the conference prepared the groundwork for international development goals, and 179 governments adopted an ambitious “programme of action”.

"It’s the other way around. Countries become wealthier when people have smaller families."

Twenty years later, policy makers can point to major achievements, but divisive issues remain, and the status of women is nowhere near where it should be, according to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“We did change the paradigm around population and made it people-centred,” Osotimehin told IPS in an interview. “We have empowered women and girls to be able to make choices in their lives, we’ve reduced maternal mortality by more than 50 percent, we have lifted one billion people out of poverty, and we have more laws today protecting women than ever before.”

Osotimehin stressed, however, that there are still some 222 million women in mainly developing countries who would like greater access to contraception and other family planning tools, but are not able to get these for a variety of reasons.

In addition, almost 800 women still die every day from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth; and teenage pregnancy, child marriage and violence against women remain troubling issues around the world. Meanwhile, women’s involvement in the political sphere lags behind that of men in most regions.

Participating in the sixth International Parliamentarians’ Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action (IPCI/ICPD) Apr. 23-25 in Stockholm, Osotimehin told IPS that the UNFPA doesn’t “get into abortion” because the organisation respects the rights of sovereign states to make their own laws.

“But we insist that in countries where it is legal, it should be performed safely, and in those countries where it is not legal, they should have empathy and compassion so that post-abortion care is available,” he said.

The Stockholm conference took place amid controversial moves in Spain to pass some of the strictest abortion legislation in Europe. But the conference itself had a much broader agenda, focusing on gender equality, gender-based violence, and reproductive and sexual health and rights – including contraception, safe abortion and sexuality education.

“This is about human rights as well as economic development,” said Baroness Jenny Tonge, a member of the UK’s House of Lords and president of the Brussels-based European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development, which organised the conference together with the UNFPA, the Swedish Parliament and other groups.

“The most important message is that we have to start with the individual. We have to make sure that women in particular are healthy, are being looked after, are not going to die in childbirth and, above all, do not have more children than they actually want,” she told IPS.

“We’ve seen the evidence and the statistics. People don’t have small families because their country has become wealthier. It’s the other way around. Countries become wealthier when people have smaller families. That’s why the message of contraception, family planning, good reproductive health and rights is so important to development,” she added.

A few parliamentarians seemed to have been sent to the conference by their governments without a clear view of the issues or objectives, but others said they were in Stockholm to take inspiration from the meeting and to effect change in their countries.

“This conference is important because a woman’s right to have access to sexual and reproductive health information is fundamentally important to development and even more so in middle-income countries,” said Kamina Johnson Smith, an opposition senator from Jamaica.

The island has a female prime minister, elected twice, but women still suffer from gender inequity, with female unemployment almost is twice the level of men’s, Johnson Smith said.

Like others in the Caribbean and Latin America, the country also struggles with a high rate of teenage pregnancy. So attending the conference and conferring with other delegates provides support in tabling certain measures in parliament, Johnson Smith told IPS.

The first day of the forum in fact saw sobering statistics about teenage pregnancy around the world: some 18 million girls up to the age of 19 become mothers every year, according to UN figures.

For Osotimehin and the UNFPA, part of the solution is to have “comprehensive sexuality education” for children and young people. “They should also have universal access to information and reproductive health services, including contraception,” he told IPS.

Surveys indicate that when these tools are available, the “need for abortion goes down,” Osotimehin added. He pointed to Sweden and the Netherlands as examples where youth-friendly centres and clinics provide counselling and other services, resulting in many young people being able to make informed choices.

“What I find is that some governments don’t have the courage to actually go and do what they need to do,” he said. “They don’t want to talk about sexuality education and they don’t want to talk about contraception. There is a need to elevate the conversation so that the reality of what we’re talking about effects action among governments, political leaders and community leaders.”

For Sweden, transparency and discussion of sexual and reproductive health is of paramount importance, said Ulrika Karlsson, MP and chairperson of the Swedish All Party Parliamentary Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights.

“When I talk about such issues, sometimes people say ‘Oh, you’re from Sweden, it’s easy for you to talk’,” she told IPS. “But Sweden hasn’t always been as developed as it is now. In 100 years, we’ve gone from a poor country with high infant and maternal mortality to a country with almost zero maternity deaths, and we hope people can be inspired by our own journey.”

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