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Keeping Women's Health and Empowerment at the Top of the Agenda

Woodrow Wilson Center International Center for Scholars | Washington, DC

Only a few decades ago, development and environmental policies seemed incompatible with reproductive rights, and the two movements were at odds. I remember years ago in the outskirts of Sao Paulo, Brazil, we tried out a cartoon depicting two women. In the cartoon, one of them said: Did you see the TV last night? They said we are poor because we have too many children. The other responded: That is nonsense. They should distribute income instead of the pill.

Today, people want better income distribution, an end to overconsumption, AND the pill. Understanding and capturing the nuances of the debate surrounding sustainable development requires a 360° view that encompasses social, economic and environmental justice goals.

But at the core of this debate—and actions, policies and funding related to sustainable development—must be human beings themselves. This is our agenda at Rio, however, this is not a new agenda.

In 1994, more than 180 governments recognized that global sustainability could only be achieved by securing the rights of girls and women, specifically their sexual and reproductive rights. The resulting consensus—the ICPD Programme of Action—is a watershed document that changed the face of development policies and funding.

Women from the north and south had a distinct and critical role in shifting the focus of the conference—and the global policy agenda— from population control to one that focused on women’s human rights and reproductive health. They were focused and inspired by the possibilities of a new development paradigm and a new way of living. Equally important, they were strategic in creating new alliances and forging consensus among diverse constituencies. As a result, Cairo not only affirmed the human rights of every girl and woman to quality sexual and reproductive health care and freedom from discrimination, it underscored its centrality towards achieving a harmonious and sustainable environment.

While the agreements made in Cairo, reinforced by subsequent United Nations agreements, resulted in a new paradigm for sustainable development, progress towards achieving the Cairo consensus has been slow and uneven. And while Cairo served as a roadmap for the Millennium Development Goals, we are uncertain, at best, as to whether we will see an end to poverty and ill-health.
So, what does Cairo have to do with Rio? What do I, and thousands of women’s rights and youth advocates from the global north and south, hope to achieve in Rio?

It’s simple, really: We must insist that sexual and reproductive rights and health cannot be separated from sustainable development. That securing universal access to sexual and reproductive health care—one of the targets of the Millennium Development Goals—is as vital as education to ensuring global economic vitality. Realize the commitments that every government—including the United States—made in Cairo.

Today, we live in a very different world than existed in 1994 when Cairo first came into existence. We live in a world today where the internet and globalization afford all of us much greater access to information. Global funding for sexual and reproductive health has declined significantly, and in every region of the world, we are coping with a HIV/AIDS epidemic that increasingly affects women and girls. Sexual rights have moved from the margins to mainstream in many countries. Just to mention the countries of the region I come from, landmark policies and laws have been adopted in Argentina, Colombia and Mexico. Perhaps most significantly, today’s generation of youth is the largest-ever, and they are very eager to take their rightful place at the table.
But the fact remains that sustainable development isn’t sustainable if it doesn’t empower women to control their own bodies, educate themselves and their kids, and have a voice in government at all levels. Everywhere young women, poor women still lack access to reproductive and sexual health. In Latin America, for example, over half of all pregnancies are unintended. Violence and discrimination threaten the well-being of women and girls, and unsafe abortion continues to be a scourge.

As long as women continue to die each day because they are denied access to sexual and reproductive health and rights — such as care during pregnancy and the right to live free of violence and discrimination — we cannot talk about sustainable development goals.

Simply meeting women’s needs for contraception, in particular, would reduce maternal and child mortality, enhance human rights, increase food security, and slow the world’s population growth. What’s the cost? Not much: In Latin America and the Caribbean, for example, fulfilling the unmet need for sexual and reproductive health care would cost less than Americans spent on Valentine’s Day dinners last year.

In recent months, IPPF/Western Hemisphere Region has been leading discussions with governments and civil society to ensure that women have a seat at the Rio negotiations. Thus far, governments have reached consensus on 70 paragraphs within the outcome document; but more than 250 paragraphs have yet to be agreed upon, including language on sexual and reproductive rights and health despite the fact that international agreement consensus exists in Cairo and subsequent resolutions. The possibility that a new set of “Sustainable Development Goals” — to replace the Millennium Development Goals — may emerge from the Summit makes women’s full participation and inclusion in the Summit a no-brainer.

Rio+20 presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to ensure that women’s needs and women’s rights are given top priority in plans for sustainable development. It also affords us the opportunity to push for greater accountability on the part of governments so that the Cairo consensus becomes a reality for each and every individual rather than a vision for the future.
In a time of multiple, interlinked human and environmental crises and very tight funding, inexpensive, multiple-benefit investments like family planning are more important than ever. Women hold up half the sky, as the old Chinese proverb says, and they must be protagonists in the next chapter of the world’s aspirations for a sustainable future.

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