On 22 September, over 140 leaders from around the world, along with representatives from UN agencies and civil society, including women’s organizations, came together for the UNGASS on the 20-year review of theInternational Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in Cairo in 1994, which had affirmed the close links between sustainable development, reproductive health and gender equality.
It was one of the first international forums to clarify the concept of reproductive rights, and its Programme of Action, also known as the Cairo Consensus, set a foundation for human rights-based development.
The ICPD Beyond 2014 Review sought to identify progress, challenges and achievements towards the Cairo goals, based on input from governments, civil society organizations and other stakeholders using the ICPD Global Survey, civil society consultations and a series of thematic conferences. The review also sought to foster renewed consensus and global commitment to the Cairo Programme of Action (POA) and explore its contribution to current intergovernmental discussions on sustainable development and the post-2015 agenda.
Referring to the progress made since Cairo, President of the General Assembly Sam Kutesa (Uganda) acknowledged the leadership provided by governments and the contribution of civil society over the past two decades, while also noting that much more must be done to improve the quality of life of all people. “Poverty, discrimination, as well as income and wealth inequality threaten economic growth, the well-being of individuals, societies, and our planet,” he stressed, noting that these challenges should be addressed in the post-2015 development agenda, while the impact of population dynamics must be better integrated into national, regional and international strategies. A coordinated, systematic response was needed, an aim which he intended to promote during the General Assembly’s sixty-ninth session.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in his remarks, indicated that the Cairo Conference was “a global turning point” as its POA was built on fundamental principles affirming that development should centre on people; emphasized the value of investing in women and girls; and affirmed the importance of sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). The Programme of Action should serve the international community as a guide in terms of challenges caused by rising inequality, urbanization, migration, population ageing and the largest generation of young people in history. The POA should also be instrumental as the post-2015 development agenda is formulated and a meaningful climate change agreement is negotiated before the end of next year, the Secretary-General stressed.
Addressing the audience, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, emphasized that the Cairo mandate had shifted the focus from human numbers to human lives, human well-being and human rights. “Cairo ensured that a bedrock principle of development would be to realize dignity and human rights for all people as a means of achieving our collective goals,” he stressed. While much has been accomplished in the past 20 years, there is still a long way to go. With the world seeing its largest generation of young people, he cautioned that there could be no talk of sustainable development without adequate investment in their health, education and employment. “You hold the future of the world’s young people in your hands. Invest in them because they hold the world’s future in theirs,” he urged. “We cannot talk about sustainable development without addressing women’s empowerment, gender inequality, and discrimination and violence. We cannot talk about sustainable development without ensuring that the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all are met,” he urged, noting that these issues “must be at the heart of the post-2015 agenda to ensure that current and future generations are made up of resilient, adaptive, innovative, creative people capable of building resilient societies.”
In the debate that followed, there was wide consensus that the ICPD was as relevant today as in 1994. Many speakers pointed to progress over the past two decades in reducing poverty, improving maternal health and enforcing girls’ education. Several emphasized that population concerns must be at the core of the post-2015 development agenda, citing the need for universal access to basic services such as health care and education. A number of Member States drew attention to national trends in maternal and infant mortality, fertility, contraceptive use, ageing and HIV/AIDS prevalence, as well as programmes for family planning and sex education, among other areas. Several speakers voiced strong support for sexual and reproductive rights, and representatives from developing countries appealed for reliable financial and technical aid to implement their respective sustainable development agendas.
President of Bolivia Evo Morales Ayma, speaking on behalf of the Group of 77/China, said it was critical to support developing countries’ efforts to eradicate poverty and inequality, and referred to unevenness in gaps in achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) and the vast socioeconomic challenges of developing countries. Developed countries should fulfil their official development assistance (ODA) pledges and development strategies should be tailored to the individual needs of each country, with North-South cooperation at its core, and South-South and triangular cooperation as a complement, he urged.
President of Chile Michelle Bachelet pointed to many unresolved global issues, noting that health and social protection systems must be equipped to deal with today’s realities, including the fact that people are living longer. Gaston Browne, Prime Minister of Antigua and Barbuda, indicated that unemployment, particularly among youth, was one of the most severe challenges his country faced, leaving young people with no future. Small countries like Antigua and Barbuda were anxious to overcome youth unemployment and guard against health threats. A sustained global effort was needed and any review of the Cairo action plan must reflect that, he urged.
Tarja Halonen, former President of Finland, drew attention to uneven progress in implementation of the Programme of Action, noting that inequality and discrimination remained barriers to people’s health and well-being. Women, the young, the poor and minority groups were particularly affected, she stressed, and differences in gender identity and sexual orientation could not be a basis for differences in the enjoyment of rights. John Baird, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Canada, said that sustainable progress would only be achieved if the international community worked on population, human rights, sustainable economic growth and sustainable development together and addressed issues holistically, while recognizing their interdependence.
A number of civil society representatives also made statements. Tewodros Melesse, International Planned Parenthood Federation, stated, “For the first time, when the Programme of Action was introduced, we saw the world come together and make a commitment to protect the dignity of individuals and families all over the world. It showed that we have more in common than differences. We may look diverse and varied, but we have come together, in one shared humanity. It is humanity that is at the centre of our international framework.” After 20 years, he urged, “it is time to develop further; 2014 is not the time to go backwards!” Mr. Melesse noted that the ICPD 20-year review indicates the direction the international community should take, and leaders should use the strength of the ICPD to support sustainable development with women and girls at the centre.
Ana Cristina González Vélez, Red de Salud de Mujeres Latinoamericanas y del Caribe, said her organization had been present 20 years ago, supporting the process and levels of negotiations. There could be no development without women, and despite progress on sexual and reproductive rights, many women live under laws that penalize them. Catherine Nyambura, Action Health Incorporated, pointed out that approximately 3.3 million girls in Africa are subjected to female genital mutilation each year. Many also face fistula and death through early pregnancy. Looking at demographics, she stressed that Africa is currently the youngest continent, and it is therefore essential to invest in young people’s health and well-being. She further called for giving young girls in Africa what they are asking for: dignity, health and equality.
In her statement, Sivananthi Thanintherin, Asia Pacific Resource Centre for Women stressed that the international community needs to be cognizant of the fact that sexual and reproductive rights are inextricable from economic, socio-cultural and political rights, and should be recognized as essential ingredients in achieving gender equality and sustainable development. Ms. Thanintherin described a range of challenges facing the region that obstruct the attainment of SRHR for all, including unequal economic development and socio-economic inequities, growth in religious and political conservatism and fundamentalism, gender-based violence, food insecurity, climate change and displacement caused by climate-related and extreme weather events, etc. “This is a point of time in history which enables governments and citizens to re-negotiate the social contract in our societies and to reimagine a world of possibility, of promise and most importantly – of hope,” she urged, calling on Member States and the international community to ensure universality of sexual and reproductive rights, and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights information and services, with particular focus on marginalized groups, in line with existing international commitments and conventions.
Dareen Abu Lail, Global Youth Action Network, told the audience that the rights of young people are not being taken seriously, and their rights and voices need to be acknowledged. Around the Middle East and elsewhere, she stressed, massive violations of human rights are taking a toll on young people, and they bear the consequences twice, once during the actual trauma and once when reliving it. She asked the audience how it was possible to celebrate the Cairo action plan when terrible things are still happening around the world. It is not enough to listen, she urged, action needs to be taken.
In his closing remarks, Vice-President of the General Assembly Denis Antoine (Grenada) welcomed the day’s discussion, including the energy, enthusiasm and commitment from organizations. He was heartened by widespread support for the Cairo Programme of Action, with many participants reiterating the recommendations within it. The world was at a turning point, he stressed, with global progress uneven and a vast range of formidable challenges ahead, including women’s empowerment and gender inequality. These issues, closely linked with development policy, needed to be addressed effectively through quick and decisive action, he concluded.
Background documents for the UNGASS are available here.
Statements from Member States at the UNGASS are availablehere.
See also the UNFPAwebsitefor additional information.
The ICPD Global Review Report is availablehere.
Access the ICPD Beyond 2014 websitehere.
For the first part of the webcast of the event, clickhere.
For the second part of the webcast of the event, clickhere.
This article is also available in French.