Friday, August 04, 2006

Breaking through the jargon

August 1, 2006 12:00- 1:30 PM

Ellen Marshall- Partner, Goods Work Group
Naina Dhingra- Director of Public Policy for Advocates for Youth

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, Egypt marked a major shift in the way the international community regarded issues of population and development. The conference brought forward a new perspective which focused not on numbers but on human needs. The ICPD also brought together governments and NGO’s in order to find ‘common ground’. The result was a 20-year Programme of Action, which was signed by 170 countries. The Cairo Consensus was remarkable because it recognized that reproductive health and rights, as well as women’s empowerment and gender equality are essential for population and development programmes. In addition, the ICPD further defined reproductive heath by using existing rights; it identified components of sexual health and defined an agenda for education, economic empowerment, especially, for women.
Since the signing of the ICPD, great progress has been made in the areas of infant mortality, reproductive health services have been mainstreamed and there has been considerable improvement in the quality of care.
In addition to the above, the ICPD proved significant because it highlighted the power of civil society. People realized that expertise and driving force need not necessarily come from the government. It also highlighted the leadership role played by the US. However, recent examples of the role of the US in this area have been unfortunate. Especially because since then, the US has been mostly involved in hurting the credibility of such international documents.
Following the ICPD there were similar international conferences, the Beijing Women’s Conference, being an important one.
However, in recent years, international agreements on reproductive health issues have not been very successful. For instance, the 2001 Declaration on HIV/AIDS. The Secretary General of the UN called for countries to come together in order to formulate a common strategy for AIDS. Governments sent representatives from their countries who had a good understanding of the issues being discussed. Although the negotiations were tense and difficult, a document was created which had references to human rights of women and girls. Important targets and commitments were also set. The result of this conference was a commitment to provide universal access to reproductive health-care. Unfortunately, a follow-up international conference which was held in June 2006 failed to accomplish anything substantial. In this case, negotiations were led by government’s representatives in New York who did not really understand the critical issues. Some had not even read the earlier document. This conference came out with a road-map but did not offer any guidelines on universal access to prevention, treatment and care-which were the most critical issues. Besides reaffirming the ICPD the new document did not offer anything substantial.
In response to questions on the future of the reproductive health movement, the panel said that the movement was stuck. The panel offered a few explanations for why the movement was in such a state. In the 1990’s there were expectations that the AIDS crisis would drive the reproductive health movement but unfortunately, that failed to happen. Today, the focus is more on treatment rather than reproductive health which would instead focus on prevention.
The Vatican and other fundamentalist forces were caught off guard at the Cairo Conference. Their rigid stance now is perhaps a reaction to the concessions they had to agree to at the ICPD.
Another reason is that most people shy away from the term Reproductive Right because they understand it in a very narrow sense. There should be an attempt to educate people that reproductive rights are not limited to abortion.

by Tahseen Alam

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