20 October 2008

Global Forum on Strengthening Partnerships with Faith Based Organizations

Statement by Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, Executive Director, UNFPA


Thank you, Safiye, for your kind introduction and thank you for being one of the leaders of UNFPA who has always believed in me. Thank you Azza and colleagues, from the countries, regions and headquarters for your tireless work in organizing this meeting and bringing all of us together in this historical city of Istanbul. Thank you Peer and colleagues in the UNFPA office in Turkey for your outstanding service to all of us. And thank you to our UN Resident Coordinator who has provided his support and has accepted to moderate this session.

Esteemed Religious Leaders,

And Leaders of Faith-based Organizations,

Distinguished Deputy President and Representative of Religious Affairs of Turkey,

My colleagues from the United Nations System,

Dear sisters and brothers, and friends,

It is my honour to join you today at the Global Forum on strengthening partnerships with faith-based organizations. It is truly gratifying to see leaders of all faiths, from all regions, coming together to tackle common challenges facing our world today. We are grateful that many of you have journeyed from afar to be with us here today and we appreciate that some of you from the Jewish faith, are celebrating holy days with us.

Eight years ago, when I was interviewed for this position of UNFPA Executive Director, the UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, asked what I would bring to this office. I told him that I would do two things. First, I would ensure improved programme delivery led not only by governments but also by the communities themselves. And second, UNFPA would reach out to engage community, culture and faith leaders in the service of “We the Peoples”.

I promised him that I would do all I could to reach common ground because the quest for human dignity is greater than all of us.

Today, eight years later, as I look at this room and see us together in this great city, my heart is filled with deep joy and satisfaction, and humility. I firmly believe that partnerships are the only way forward if our ideals of human rights are to become living realities for every man and woman, young and old. The struggle against poverty, poor health and illiteracy, and violence and discrimination against women, cannot be won without the engagement of all sectors of society, including people and institutions in the faith community.

During the last eight years, I have worked with wonderful, committed colleagues in UNFPA to institutionalize a culturally sensitive approach, a “cultural lens,” to our humanitarian and development work. We have done so based on the wisdom we have gained over the years—that sustainable social change must be deeply rooted.

The UNFPA mission is to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect. At the heart of our work lies a focus on human rights and human dignity. We believe that all individuals have inherent worth and a right to reach their full potential.

In my life, I have been blessed with many opportunities. I was born to parents from Medina, Saudi Arabia. As devout Muslims, they took seriously the first surah in the Quran, the command to read. By deciding to educate me at a time when Saudi Arabia had no schools for girls, they believed they were doing their duties as committed believers. They knew very well that knowledge is the basis for faith and informed life-decisions.

My father, supported by my mother, had a dream for me and so they decided to send me to a girls’ boarding school in Cairo when I was seven. My father later told me that leaving me there that day was one of the most difficult experiences of his life. As I cried, every nerve, bone and cell in his body was telling him to take me back home with him. But he knew that he was doing what God told every Muslim to do—to ensure that every child is educated.

He left me at a Presbyterian missionary school in Cairo because it would provide me with the best education and social protection. It was not an issue for him that it was a Christian school because he believed and he instilled in me the belief that God is the same God for everyone, though expressed differently by each faith. He wanted me to have the opportunity to grow and learn. But most importantly he taught me tolerance, mutual respect and the acceptance of others.

After years of studying very hard, I was the first Saudi woman to be awarded a government scholarship for university study in the United States. This experience gave me the space and the opportunity to meet students and professors from all backgrounds and religious faiths, confirming the values that my father had taught me.

I tell you these stories because I would not be standing here in front of you today, as an Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, leading a very sensitive and comprehensive agenda, if I had not received support and an education. I was empowered by both knowledge and faith to make decisions about every step of my life. With the support of my family, especially my father and brothers, and my country, I was able to choose my educational track, my husband, the number of my children and the spacing between them, and my workplace. I was able to choose the direction of my life.

I was fortunate and remain grateful. But today many young people, and especially young women, are not so fortunate. They do not have the opportunities that I was afforded and they are unable to achieve their dreams. Worse yet, some are so resigned to their conditions that they do not even dare to dream of a better life. Sometimes, this situation is justified erroneously on the basis of cultural traditions and interpretation of religious beliefs.

My dear sisters and brothers,

We have come together from all corners of the globe to build a global network united by a common vision—a vision where every human being has inherent dignity and worth, where every human being can live free of fear and want, and reach his or her full potential.

This Forum is the culmination of a journey. The first step was the Africa Forum in Durban in December 2007. Faith-based partners from over 15 African countries came together to share their experience of partnering with UNFPA to eradicate HIV and violence against women.

From there, we travelled to Kuala Lumpur, where our partners from more than 12 Asia and Pacific countries convened, and then to Cairo, where partners from over 9 Arab countries came together last July. We ended in Buenos Aires, where partners from 12 Latin American and Caribbean countries gathered to discuss the best ways to combat maternal mortality and violence against women, to fight the spread of HIV and the stigma of those affected by AIDS, and to address migration issues and the concerns of young people in our fast-changing world.

As religious leaders and leaders of faith-based organizations, you know very well the challenges that individuals and families in your communities face. As leaders, you promote the core beliefs and ideals found in all the great faith traditions: compassion, solidarity, and human dignity.

It is in this spirit that world leaders agreed on the Millennium Development Goals as a common framework, and shared responsibility, to ensure a life of dignity for all. These goals build on agreements reached during the 1990s at UN-sponsored international conferences, including the International Conference on Population and Development, held nearly 15 years ago in Cairo. The Programme of Action of this conference is the frame of reference for the support that countries request from UNFPA.

This Programme of Action shifted the population agenda away from a top down focus on demographics to a focus on the rights of people to make choices about their lives, including the right to determine the number and spacing of their children. The shift was clearly from counting people to making people count, from people as beneficiaries to people as actors responsible for their lives. It reinforced the notion that people are at the centre of economic and social development. The recommendations went further to address the plight and rights of migrants, displaced persons and refugees. There is a focus on population and the environment, and ways to improve the quality of life while protecting prospects for future generations.

The Programme of Action asserts that the family is the basic unit of society and deals with the role of families in changing social and economic environments. And it goes on to elaborate reproductive health and rights, including maternal health and family planning, and to stress the critical importance of women’s empowerment, equity and equality.

Despite controversies, this agreement was reached by 179 countries through consensus. And it was agreed, because of the sensitive nature of the agenda, that the implementation of its recommendations is the sovereign right of each country, consistent with national laws and development priorities. At the same time, delegates agreed that this had to be done with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of people, and in conformity with universally recognized international human rights.

We all know that issues concerning relations within families, between couples, relating to sexual relations and reproduction, can be both sensitive and controversial. Of course they are; they cut to the very core of the human experience and emotion.

Yet the silence and taboos surrounding many of these issues often cause human suffering and can mean the difference between life and death. And I believe we have a moral obligation to take a stand.

We have to ask ourselves:

Is it moral to allow a woman to die every minute during childbirth when we know what can save her?

Is it moral to extend the suffering of a woman who was raped and violated, to endure a life of shame and stigma?

Is it moral to leave refugees and displaced persons, mostly women and their children, to an existence deprived of the basics of life because we do not see the special needs of women?

Is it moral to forbid a girl to have the same chances in life as a boy simply because she was born a girl?

As human beings, we share a common humanity. And yet for too many people today, the comprehensive package of knowledge, services and support they need to change their conditions, to escape from poverty and enjoy a life of health and opportunity, remain beyond reach.

Your religious communities have traditionally served as the oldest social service networks. You have moral authority and social and political outreach within your respective networks. You are able to employ these resources to improve human well-being and serve the purpose of the greater good.

UNFPA has a legacy of engaging the faith-based communities. I am proud to report that we have identified over 400 existing partnerships with Buddhist, Hindu, Catholic, Protestant and Muslim groups.

Esteemed leaders,

My sisters and brothers,

I have talked a lot about the values we hold in common. But our partnership is not just about hope and ideas – above all it is about taking action. I hope that our dialogue during the next few days is geared towards concrete results. How can we enhance our partnership for better service delivery?

I hope that we will agree to establish a Global Interfaith Network on Population and Development, reinforcing the networks that you have already established at the regional level.

I envision the global and regional networks as a dynamic chain of relations to mobilize faith-based actors for the human rights and dignity of women, men and young people, in the specific areas we gathered to address. These Networks can identify and coordinate our support to the people we serve and facilitate the exchange of knowledge and integration with other partners to find solutions.

Guided by mutual respect of our differences and collective commitment to common goals, these Networks would multiply our outreach and impact. I also envision this network as a source of knowledge and advice to me as the Executive Director of UNFPA, especially as we face increasingly complex challenges such as the financial and food crisis and climate change and their impact on communities and individuals.

I very much hope that we will be able to speak openly about the challenges facing women, men and young people. Over the next two days, we will examine existing partnerships and develop ways to move them forward and build new ones. We will listen and learn from each other and highlight lessons learned. We will look at cases of success where faith-based organizations and UNFPA tackled obstacles and challenges. And together we will identify principles for the way forward and how UNFPA can best support this network and shared commitment.

My colleagues and I, not only in UNFPA but across the United Nations system, and I welcome those who have joined us for this meeting, are fully aware of the intricacies, complexities, and sensitivities inherent in these partnerships. I do not expect us to be the same but I do expect that we focus on what brings us together to serve the communities who need us and to identify ways in which we can complement each other.

Let us hope that over the next two days we reach common ground to ensure the human rights and dignity of all people, especially those who are marginalized, stigmatized and excluded. Let us commit to continuing this journey together.