Progress towards 20-year-old targets that sought to put women’s sexual and reproductive health and rights at the centre of development policy will be assessed at a UN meeting in New York this week. The week-long Commission on Population and Development (CPD), which begins on Monday, will measure how far countries have come in meeting the action plan that emerged from the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in 1994, and discuss ways to plug the gaps
The draft text of the CPD resolution, which member states will be encouraged to sign on Friday, states that the 20th anniversary of the Cairo agreement, as it has become known, offers an opportune moment to “take stock of existing achievements, while also suggesting further steps to accelerate its implementation”.
In September 1994, 179 countries signed up to the Cairo plan of action. It was seen as a landmark document because, for the first time, it emphasised the centrality of women’s empowerment in tackling population growth and development. It encouraged governments to switch their emphasis on population control from simply increasing access to family planning, to looking more broadly at women’s empowerment and how their lives can be improved.
The document contained more than 200 recommendations, covering issues such as access to decent reproductive health services, sexual health advice and support, and the elimination of harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and forced marriage. It also called on governments to prioritise education, particularly for girls, and to provide skills training to improve their chances of getting jobs.
In New York, delegates will discuss how the sentiments of Cairo can be advanced and incorporated into UN discussions about what should follow the millennium development goals when they expire next year.
Women’s rights campaigners are anticipating a fight over the language in the final CPD document, which in its present form makes references to addressing discrimination based on sex and gender – implying a shoring up of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights – and the need for comprehensive sex education for young people, which suggests access to abortion.
“Certain governments fear sexual diversity, and coming on the heels of the Uganda legislation [on prosecuting homosexuality], they don’t want sexual orientation included,” said Edward Marienga, from Family Health Options Kenya, a member association of the IPPF. “Also, when we include comprehensive sexual health, we are leaving room for abortion. But we hope these might not be too contentious this time.”
Marienga, who will be lobbying the 40-strong Kenyan delegation involved in the CPD, is optimistic that determined work from women’s rights organisations can turn the tide. “We hope to have the issues of sexual and reproductive health and rights coming out more strongly this time. We hope that we will impress on our government about using progressive language,” he said.
Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN population fund, the UNFPA, said he had been having discussions with delegates about the more sensitive issues in the outcome document. He hoped that getting general agreement against discrimination and violence would be a big step forward.
“At the end of the day, countries are able to do what they want to do. Countries are at different stages. We do respect sovereignty … but if we all agree as an international community to see that there is no discrimination of any kind, I think we can move on,” Osotimehin said.
The draft CPD document was an entry point to the conversation to review “what has happened in the last 20 years since Cairo”, he added. “That story has to be told very powerfully.”
Osotimehin said the past two decades had brought significant progress in reducing maternal mortality and improving poverty levels. School enrolment for girls has improved, there is greater access to family planning, and many countries have introduced laws against child marriage. However, there is a long way to go, he said: “Sadly, despite all this, we believe we could have done better.”
The paradigm shift in thinking that emerged from Cairo, in which people were put at the centre of development, was vital for sustainable development, he said. “If you don’t put people at the centre of the post-2015 agenda, we will not make the progress we are looking for.”