Bridging the Gaps
Let me start by describing a scenario you may find familiar:
The opposition is pulling out all stops in fighting basic sexual and reproductive rights.
They are immune to evidence based arguments.
Their try to impose their ideology.
They show insensitivity to the plight of poor women around the world who suffer the consequences of bad policies.
They show no respect for the rights of young people.
They try to re-invent language, assigning hidden threats to the most innocent words. .
They don’t bulge. They don’t seek compromise. Negotiations hardly advance. You may think I am describing what has happened at some session of Congress in the US or in your own country. I am sorry to disappoint you. I am talking about the preparations for the Cairo Conference in 1994.
It goes without saying that the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development was a watershed event.
At that meeting, 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.
This unprecedented agreement was made possible by a combination of factors that were unique to that historical moment. Of particular significance was the rise of a strong and vibrant network of activists that some have called a “global civil society.”
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. Surprisingly, they found key allies among those they were criticizing: advocates for population stabilization.
Indeed, Cairo saw an odd cooperation between population and women’s rights advocates. While some have interpreted this alliance as a marriage of political convenience—both were rebuffing attempts by religious conservatives to restrict access to contraception—I see this unlikely partnership as more than tactical. It reflected the acknowledgement of a common underlying agenda: women’s empowerment and slower population growth can be mutually reinforcing. In the past coercive policies inspired by the fear of population growth have put them at odds with each other. But today, when millions of women cannot exercise their right to avoid an unwanted pregnancy, promoting this right – and all human rights – has the side benefit of slowing population growth.
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 health funding for our issues has declined significantly, and in every region of the world, we are coping with a maturing 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.
Still, what has not changed since Cairo is the huge inequality around the world. Huge gaps stills persist in every country. 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. A recent article in the Lancet shows that rates actually are increasing in developing countries where abortion is mostly illegal, while they are decreasing in developed countries where abortion is legal.
Right now, we are at a crossroads. Several global processes—a twenty year review of global sustainable development goals (Rio +20), a twenty-year review of progress towards achieving the Cairo Programme of Action, and a review of the Millennium Development Goals—are happening within the next few years, all with implications on the future of the global sexual and reproductive health and rights agenda.
In the next year, we will have several opportunities to make our voices heard, evaluate what progress has been made and think about how Cairo can be strengthened to better meet the real-life needs of women and young people everywhere. These opportunities include the creation of a comprehensive global report on Cairo implementation, regional consultations with civil societies and governments, and the 2014 UN General Assembly meeting. In each of these processes, it is crucial that we reinvigorate the alliance between parliamentarians and civil society for supporting the actions and funding needed to secure the health and human rights of all.
We are off to an excellent start with the landmark declaration adopted by the Commission on Population and Development a couple of weeks ago. Still, some are afraid that we will not be able to secure the Cairo Programme of Action today. Many doubt that we will be able to include stronger language on abortion, youth and sexual rights. To these naysayers, I would simply say that getting older has its advantages, perhaps most importantly the benefit of historical perspective.
In Cairo, we secured a historic agreement that fundamentally shifted the way we view poverty, gender equality and reproductive rights despite vocal opposition. While civil society cooperated with parliamentarians to produce new ideas and energy, the ultimate decision-makers were governments. That is why your commitment—and actions—are needed to ensure that the empowerment of women and the realization of Cairo remain high on the global agenda in years to come.
And while opposition remains robust today, if we allow our common goal to guide us—a world where the sexual and reproductive rights and health of all are upheld and provided for—we can once again overcome. Yes, we can!