Reproductive behaviour and reproductive rights are closely linked to the attainment of
other social rights and opportunities. The ICPD, the Social Summit and the FWCW all
recognized that sustainable development is defined by, among other things, a better
quality of life for all people, regardless of gender. This implies a development agenda
that focuses directly on meeting the needs and hopes of individual men, women and
children, now and in the future. Empowering people to escape from poverty and accelerate
overall development will require the recognition and exercise of their basic rights.
Womens empowerment will be central to advancing this
person-centred agenda. The development task facing many countries is too immense to allow
narrowly defined gender roles to prevent half the population from contributing fully.
Within the spheres where women have been allowed to participatein many societies,
primarily in domestic roles and in the informal economytheir contributions have been
substantial, but under-appreciated.
Empowering people to escape from
poverty and accelerate overall development will require the recognition and exercise of
their basic rights.
|Social, economic and political rights are not just interrelated in
principle; their implementation is bound together in practice. Thus, womens access
to reproductive health services is constrained by their broader social deprivation,
including the lack of resources for or priority to their health, restrictions on social
participation, and limited access to information due to illiteracy.
The social empowerment of women clearly contributes to, and depends
on, good reproductive health. Mobility, particularly the freedom to travel outside the
home, is important in broadening access to reproductive health services including family
planning. Economic security, including the right to own property and have cash savings,
enables women to negotiate household spending decisions. Where women have control over
purchases (either from their own earnings or in cooperation with their spouses) they
invest more of their discretionary income in their children, their household and their own
health needs. Shared household decision-making strengthens a familys capacity to
improve the well-being of all its members.
The successful exercise of reproductive rights strengthens families
directly and indirectly. Ill health and untimely death from diseases of the reproductive
system cause a significant loss of resources. Moreover, womens lack of control over
reproduction extracts additional costs. In the Philippines, the pace of childbearing has
been shown to affect significantly womens participation in the labour force; there,
as elsewhere, women must work to meet basic family needs. The same study found that
childbearing affects many dimensions of the quality of life in the household including
available assets, conveniences, nutritional status and child well-being.1
Family planning has also been linked to lower rates of marital
dissolution. Couples that discuss family matters and make decisions jointlyincluding
decisions about family planningare evidently better able to adapt to other shared
stresses. Greater control over reproductive decisions also reduces the stresses and
burdens to which the couple must adapt.
While contraceptive use may not by itself change a womans
situation in life, her control over her fertility is often associated with greater choice
in other life domains. Womens knowledge of government and participation in the
political arena, including informal local associations, are also important for the
exercise of their rights, as are knowledge of marriage and inheritance laws, and the means
to ensure that these laws are applied fairly.
Role of Men
Discussion of gender equality concerns both sexes. Efforts to
advance womens rights began with recognition of the need to redress the systematic
exclusion of women from opportunities open to men, and to end gender-based discrimination
in the distribution of resources and rewards. Early rights language, therefore, placed
mens opportunities as a standard against which womens could be assessed.
However, just as gender-defined roles have led to thwarted opportunities for many women,
they have also burdened men. Recognizing, cultivating and sharing the diverse potentials
of both men and women can advance the quality of life of all.
Womens lives are usually described in terms of motherhood,
while mens lives are usually characterized as heads of household or wage-earners.
Mens role as fathers tend to be vague. Yet, mens commitment to their children
is key to the quality of family life and the prospects of the next generation.
Womens contributions to the household economy, remunerated or
not, are substantial and undervalued. On the domestic front, while women have taken on an
increasing role in providing income to their families, men have not taken up their share
of responsibility in family life. Responsibility for children, in particular, is still
seen as belonging to the mother.
To successfully promote male involvement in the family, concerned
leaders, governments, and NGOs must begin by confronting cultural barriers. They must work
to educate boys and men to prepare them for a broader fathering role. Studies have found
that this kind of education, combined with experience, can strengthen the bonds between
fathers and children. The media can also play a role by popularizing a positive picture of
relationships between fathers and children.
Mens support for women during pregnancy and involvement in
childbirth have not yet been promoted effectively despite considerable evidence of their
benefits for all concerned. Indeed, some health facilities are set up in a way that
prevents men who wish to be involved from getting involved. Yet, programmes in Jamaica,
Cameroon and other countries have shown that men respond very well to efforts to involve
them in the period after childbirth, for example, which is a critical time for them to
support their partners and bond with their newborn children. Policies and programmes must
be put in place that recognize the critical role of both parents in the family.
Men are frequently unaware of and insensitive to womens
reproductive and sexual health needs. In many cultures misunderstandings and myths about
female sexuality and reproductive systems persist though there are some indications
of change in male attitudes towards a range of taboos and concerns, including those about
menstruation and cleanliness. Definitions of mens family
responsibilities as primarily economic and protective can prevent them from developing
nurturing and satisfying relationships with their children and spouses. Gender stereotypes
can also subject men to unrealistic expectations; failure to fulfil these may result in a
sense of frustration and insecurity which can foster violent or escapist behaviour.
Male socialization has perpetuated these myths, as well as attitudes
about male roles, expectations about sexuality and masculinity, and a certain acceptance
of domestic violence. These are increasingly being challenged, but a large minority of men
still consider sexual and reproductive health matters to be womens concerns, and as
such beneath their notice.
Boys and men should learn in the family, school and community
positive values and practices promoting respectful and responsible sexuality and
parenthood. Men need to understand the risks women face from multiple partners, harmful
traditional practices, and sexual initiation too early in life; they also need to
understand and respond to the risks of pregnancy and childbirth. Womens health,
particularly in the area of reproductive and sexual health, requires the mutual concern
and investment of both members of the couple.
Husband and wife communication about reproductive health including
family planning has been improving over the past decades. Men often play important direct
and indirect roles in family planning decisions, but still assume only a minor role in
household and domestic duties, including child care. Mens desired family size is
often similar to but slightly larger than their partners; if the balance of domestic
responsibility were more equal, mens attitudes to family size might be still closer
to their partners.
Increasing numbers of women today are working towards their own
empowerment. But they cannot do it alone. Mens support is essential: efforts to
increase womens status are unlikely to succeed without it. Because men dominate
positions of power and hold the power to influence societal thinking in most parts of the
world, they have a key role to play in eliminating inequalities between themselves and
women. Men must come to recognize that womens empowerment is not a threat but rather
a way to improve families and societies. Societal progress can only be achieved if men
promote womens empowerment in all spheres: in the home, in reproductive
decision-making, in education, in the workplace, and in the political, legislative and
public policy arenas.
In much of the world too little attention has been paid to the
education of girls. Huge gaps persist between womens and mens educational
achievement. Globally, nearly 600 million women remain illiterate today, compared with
about 320 million men. In certain parts of the world, moreover, as many as three in four
women are illiterate, and others have received no more than a negligible education. This
neglect has had critical consequences for womens well-being, for their empowerment
as well as for their reproductive choices and roles.
Through empowerment, women take control of their lives. The
education of girls is a key factor in improving family health, reducing infant mortality,
and changing reproductive behaviour. With education comes increased confidence and
self-esteem. Educated women are more likely to stand up for themselves, participate in the
labour force, and seek health care for themselves and their children.
While few studies have addressed the myriad linkages among
womens education, their autonomy, and their reproductive behaviour, a recent review
of literature from various disciplines and regions affirms that in almost every setting,
regardless of region, culture, or level of development, well-educated women have a greater
say in their lives, including their reproductive lives, and bear fewer children than do
uneducated women. In almost every setting where it has been studied, the relationship is
genuine and cannot be explained by the fact that educated women marry better-educated men
or come from wealthier households.2
At the same time, the study cautions that a modest amount of
education does not necessarily enhance womens autonomy, improve reproductive health,
or increase reproductive choices in all contexts. In settings where incomes and literacy
are low and where there are wide disparities in literacy between men and women, there
appear to be threshold levels of education that must be reached before changes in
fertility and other aspects of reproductive behaviour can occur. The results clearly
suggest that the impact of womens education is greatest among women with more than
five or six years of schooling; it is also greatest when education offers women an
expanded role in family decisions and control over resources.
Over the past few years, recognition of the neglect of womens
education has grown, both in international forums and in national agendas, with increasing
commitments to investments in female education. The ICPD Programme of Action reaffirms
everyones right to education and gives special attention to women and girls. It
recognizes education as a key factor in sustainable development and womens
empowerment, and terms the eradication of illiteracy one of the prerequisites for
human development. The ICPD called for universal access to primary education before
2015, and urged countries to take steps to keep girls and adolescents in school, in order
to close the gender gap in primary and secondary education by 2005. Encouraging attention
to the quality and type of education, including recognition of traditional
values, the Programme of Action urges countries that have achieved the goal of
universal primary education . . . to extend education and training to, and facilitate
access to and completion of education at, secondary school and higher levels.
Menas legislators, decision-makers in ministries of education,
school administrators, participants in the design of educational curricula, teachers and
fathershave a critical role to play. They must make sure that girls are able to go
to school, stay in school, and are taught the skills they need to succeed in the workplace
and the world at large on equal terms. Men also must teach boys new ways to think about
their roles and about women in this rapidly changing world.
Education can provide boys with a different interpretation of
masculinity, replacing the one based on domination with one defined by shared
responsibility. Education can provide girls with increased opportunities to make informed
decisions for them-selves. Offer a girl education and she has the power to make choices.
Offer her a nurturing environment in which to grow and she can change her society for the
better. Offer her reproductive health services and she and her future children will enjoy
a healthier tomorrow.
Attacking poverty by providing economic opportunities also improves
reproductive health. Realizing sexual and reproductive rights will help to end poverty.
The poor are multiply disadvantaged. Lacking political influence and social visibility,
they are underserved by public services, and cannot afford private services to meet their
fundamental needs. Their days are often caught up in a struggle for survival. Their basic
social and economic rights, including the right to reproductive and sexual health, are
often restricted, and they often do not know what their rights are.
The poor are often disadvantaged in their quest for reproductive and sexual health early
in life. Poor children, born to women more likely to be undernourished themselves, are
more likely to be of relatively low birthweight and therefore at higher risk of ill health
and death in their earliest years. Continued poor nutrition through early life can stunt
growth and retard physical and mental development.
Poorer mothers tend to have more children than other women; they are frequently unaware of
or unreached by contraceptive services, or are deterred by the real and perceived costs of
services. Within families on the margin of subsistence, more children means greater
competition for resources. Children face pressure to contribute to family resources,
reducing the already limited support for their education. As families grow, daughters are
often kept out of school to assist with child-rearing and household tasks. Changing
conditions of life in diverse parts of the world are confronting families with situations
not faced by prior generations. Research indicates that women increasingly understand that
the prospects for a better life for their families depend on educating their children.
Even where economic development has been slow and life conditions have not changed
dramatically, people have very different views than their parents had about how their
reproductive and sexual lives relate to their own and their childrens prospects for
success.3 New social norms lend community support to reproductive self-determination
and the choice of small families. Where reproductive services are available, these can
make a significant contribution to the alleviation of poverty.
Research around the world4 suggests that programmes that
attack poverty by providing economic opportunities, also allow poor people, especially
women, to exercise greater control over all aspects of their lives. One of the most
important effects is on reproductive health and behaviour. For example, a study of rural
villages in Bangladesh where the Grameen Bank has provided small loans to womens
groups for economic activities found all womeneven those who were not
participantsto have more power of decision than women in similar villages without
these opportunities; as a consequence, they were also more likely to use contraception.
In societies where tradition insists on the social isolation of
women, self-employment programmes can have considerable impact simply by involving women
in informal social interaction with other women, including those who practise family
planning. Along with increased availability of information, the result can be changes in
social norms concerning fertility and contraception.
The interaction of education, employment, resource control and
womens control over reproductive decisions is complex. Research in Togo,5 for
example, found that the greater a womans control over economic resources6 and the
selection of her marital partner,7 the more likely she was to have communicated with her partner about family
planning. Higher levels of discussion between spouses were associated with higher use of
both traditional and modern methods of family planning. Use of modern methods was also
associated with higher levels of education and urban residence.
Since 1982 UNFPA has supported more than 20
projects combining provision of reproductive health services and
information with microcredit activitiesin countries as diverse
as India, Madagascar, Paraguay and the Sudan. These experiences
confirm that the benefits of individual control over reproductive
life and economic life reinforce each other. Improving livelihoods,
while also ensuring access to reproductive health services and information,
enhances womens self-esteem, their confidence, their participation
in political and community life, their decision-making power and
their position in the family. They benefit, their families benefit,
and their communities prosper.