Round Table Considers Ways Civil Society Can Help Promote Reproductive Health and women's Rights

United Nations Population Fund
Contact: in New York:
Alex Marshall
Abubakar Dungus
William Ryan

The ICPD+5 review process

DHAKA, Bangladesh, 28 July -- Legislation, lobbying and mass mobilization are all part of laying the groundwork for reproductive rights and health and women’s empowerment, according to participants at an international meeting here.

The Round Table on Partnership with Civil Society in the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action went into its second day on Tuesday, with a discussion on creating an "enabling environment" to carry out the recommendations of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo.

Speakers -- including the leader of a grass-roots women’s group in India, a South African official concerned with social development, an advocate for international funding of population programmes, and parliamentarians from several countries -- offered a wide variety of examples of how to promote change that will help countries realize the goals adopted by the ICPD.

Convened by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and hosted by the Government of Bangladesh, the four-day round-table meeting is part of "ICPD+5", a series of international activities reviewing progress since the Cairo conference.

Representatives from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other sectors of civil society as well as from governments are discussing national experiences in carrying out the ICPD action plan, with a focus on civil society involvement. The aim is to identify successes and constraints, and recommend actions to accelerate progress -- particularly policy changes that will facilitate partnerships involving a broad range of civil society actors, as called for in the Programme of Action.

The first of two plenary sessions was on the theme "partnership in action, civil society, government and the international community". It was opened by Mirai Chatterjee, general secretary of India’s Self-Employed Women’s Association, who offered lessons based on her group’s work mobilizing rural women. She said that women should be accepted as equal partners, rather than be seen as liabilities or merely recipients of charity, and that their significant contributions as workers must be recognized. Women’s right to control their work and health should also be acknowledged.

She said that health and family planning programmes need to be decentralized, and designed and run by local people -- including community organizations, village councils, women’s associations, labour unions and cooperatives. Greater integration of health and family welfare services at the grass-roots level is also needed, with an emphasis on improving the health and nutritional standards of poor communities. Grass-roots women’s organizations should play a lead role "because their programmes and services can reach the poorest of the poor."

At the same time, she added, men should be involved in all aspects of health and family planning programmes, and many men are open to such involvement. They should be given information about their own health and that of women, family planning, and how to deal with addictions and alcoholism and prevent sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Speaking from the floor on the role of men, Glenda Simms, Executive Director of the Bureau of Women Affairs in Jamaica, said the issue of male involvement should be tackled differently in different societies. In Jamaica, she said, men are being asked to take their roles as fathers more seriously and to redefine their perceptions of manhood.

The next speaker was Fidelia Maforah, Director of Social Development in South Africa’s National Department of Welfare and Population Development. She said the South African Government had helped create an enabling environment for the promotion of ICPD objectives by introducing a new Constitution including a Bill of Rights, and enacting such legislation as the Not-For-Profit Organizations Act-- which ensured the rights of all NGOs to be registered -- the Termination of Pregnancy Act and the Population Policy Act.

One problem to be addressed, she said, is that many South African NGOs are not based in local communities. In creating partnerships to empower women and advance the ICPD’s broad objectives, she suggested, NGOs should do more to involve grass-roots women and their organizations in policy making.

The president of Population Action International, an advocacy NGO based in the United States, Amy Coen, spoke on the need to involve new partners in the effort to fund reproductive health and population programmes. This is critical, she said, because donor governments are not meeting the financial commitments made at the ICPD, and particularly because the U.S. Congress has been withholding funds for population programmes. She suggested that civil society groups seek funding from private foundations as well as from corporations, but acknowledged that in her country businesses are reluctant to get involved in reproductive health issues because of the controversy surrounding abortion.

Next, the round table turned to a discussion on the role of parliamentarians in creating an enabling environment for implementing the Cairo programme, led by three women lawmakers from Uganda, Peru and Mongolia.

Grace Akello, a Member of Parliament from Uganda, said that lawmakers can use all of their traditional roles -- as legislators, appropriators of budgets and mobilizers -- to help carry out the Programme of Action. In addition, they can serve as as a bridge linking community-based organizations and NGOs with governments and international bodies.

She reported that Uganda’s parliamentarians have enacted laws that promote women’s rights, including a Land Act which recognizes women as co-owners of land for the first time. A group of lawmakers have formed the Uganda Parliamentarians’ Forum on Food and Security, Population and Development, which works to enact progressive laws and ensure their enforcement, as well as lobby for the allocation of adequate resources for population programmes.

A parliamentarian from Peru, Beatriz Merino, highlighted laws that promote the rights of women in her country. One of them is a 25 per cent quota that encourages the election of women to political positions. She said parliamentarians should enact stronger legislation to protect women, outlaw sexual harassment and promote women’s self-employment. NGOs should try to convince government finance ministries that money spent on women’s reproductive health is a worthy investment, she added.

B. Narantsetseg, a Member of Parliament from Mongolia, reported that since its transition to a market economy, her country has faced social problems such as high unemployment and prostitution; some 36 per cent of the population lives in poverty, according to the World Bank. Since there were no real NGOs under the country’s former socialist government, she said, the country has encouraged the formation of genuine ones by exempting them from taxes on the donations they receive from corporations.

Following the plenary session, round-table participants went into working groups to discuss the four themes of the Dhaka meeting: Partnership to create an enabling environment for carrying out the Programme of Action; Social mobilization to promote and carry out the Programme; Partnership for capacity-strengthening, accountability, coalition-building and financial stability; and Partnership to promote full access to reproductive health services.

Earlier today, participants heard about plans for an NGO forum, to be held on 6-7 February 1999 in The Hague, just before the UNFPA-organized international forum there on ICPD+5. They were briefed by Wouter Meijer, director of the World Population Foundation, a Dutch NGO. The NGO forum, he said, is intended to maximize NGOs’ influence at the intergovernmental forum and at the special session of the United Nations General Assembly in June and July, and to discuss the role of NGOs in ICPD implementation. A secretariat has been set up to coordinate plans for the meeting; an international advisory group is being formed and will meet at least twice before the forum; and national NGO focal points will be named, along with focal points on key issue areas.

(For information purposes only. Not an official document.)

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