Statement at the Annual Conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) -- "Islam, Globalization and Feminist Networks", in Washington, D.C.

25 Nov 2002

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here today with such distinguished panellists. I would like to thank Mahnaz Afkhami and the Women's Learning Partnership and the Association of Middle East Women's Studies for co-sponsoring this important session on Islam, Globalization and Feminist Networks.

As the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund, UNFPA, and as a Muslim woman fully committed to gender equality and equity, I have been asked to speak about reproductive health networks in the Arab region. It is with pleasure that I do so.

I can honestly think of very few issues that raise more eyebrows than reproductive health and reproductive rights, especially in Muslim countries. These issues are very sensitive and yet they are essential to human survival on the most fundamental level.

The issues of reproductive health go to the very core of human existence and to the centre of human relationships-both the intimate relationships that we have in our lives and also the relationships we have to the broader society. For reproductive health is not merely an individual matter, it is a matter that involves the community and the society. Why? Because these issues touch on issues of culture and religion, and they touch on values, traditions and practices. They also touch the traditional patriarchal structures in the communities-structures that establish and maintain power relations between women and men and among the community at large. And that is why improving reproductive health requires improvement in the status of women as one of the basic human rights. It requires a serious change in the behaviours of individual women and men, family members and members of the community. It also requires a change in the mindset of national leaders of both the legislative and executive parts of the country-change that calls and takes action for greater participation and greater respect of human rights.

This consensus is spelled out in the Programme of Action that was agreed by 179 governments at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), which was held in Cairo in 1994. The Conference shifted the emphasis of population planning away from reaching demographic targets to promoting human rights and well-being. The Cairo Conference, in effect, changed the focus from numbers to people.

The Cairo Conference, which involved more than 11,000 participants and 179 countries, agreed that advancing gender equality and equity and the empowerment of women, and eliminating all kinds of violence against women, and ensuring women's ability to control their own fertility, are cornerstones of population and development related programmes.

Let us make no mistake about it. The Cairo Conference was a watershed event and the 20-year Programme of Action that was adopted in Cairo continues to guide the work of governments, UNFPA, and others working around the world to improve reproductive health and women's rights. But there is much that has not been implemented and much that needs to be done.

One area for spearheading change that UNFPA deemed essential was in the legislative sphere. We, thus, established partnerships with parliamentarians in the developed countries to mobilize financial and political support and in developing countries for political and legislative support for population and development challenges, of which the empowerment of women is central.

In the Muslim countries, as in other parts of the world, UNFPA is working very closely with parliamentarians. There are two regional parliamentarian groups that also cover Muslim countries. The very first one is the Asian Forum of Parliamentarians on Population and Development (AFPPD), which was established in 1982. Presently it includes 19 national parliamentary committees covering all of Asia and the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) countries, with six full-time offices in six countries. The more recent one is the Forum of African and Arab Parliamentarians for Population and Development (FAAPPD), which was established five years ago, in 1997, as a post-ICPD initiative. It includes now 61 parliaments in Africa and the Arab countries and its secretariat is in Dakar, Senegal. The sub-regional Arab Bureau of the Forum, located in Amman at the Upper House of Parliament, is now requesting to have an independent group for Arab States. They all work together as a network to achieve two important goals. First, they can introduce legislative reforms aimed at making national policies and programmes operational and at removing obstacles to achieve the goals of ICPD programme of action and the ICPD+5 benchmarks. Second, they can promote the mobilization and allocation of resources at the national and international levels for the achievement of the ICPD Programme of Action.

However, to be fair in this presentation, the Arab group is still the youngest of all the groups and the weakest as well. It is the environment of the region to focus on the political and security issues more than the social issues. Therefore, much work needs to be done here to sensitize and develop the capacity of the Arab parliamentarians, both women and men, to the need for action for reproductive health and rights.

I have just come back from Ottawa, Canada, where we convened the first International Parliamentarians Conference on the Implementation of ICPD Programme of Action, 21 - 22 November 2002. 130 parliamentarians attended representing all regional groups, thus all continents. The conference adopted a Declaration and call to action to ensure that the consensus reached in Cairo is fully respected and further translated into legislative reforms to protect gains that have occurred in the rights of women, in particular. It further put in place a Steering Committee for follow-up action at the country level. In line with what I have just said, it is interesting to note that when the Arab Parliamentarians spoke in the conference, it was about peace and security and the seriousness of the political instability in the region.

To fulfill the objectives of these various Parliamentarian Fora, UNFPA supports them in three ways. First, we facilitate an exchange of information, lessons learned and best practices between countries and across regions on issues of population and development. Second, we help establish and support their activities for advocacy, promotion of legislative decisions and resource mobilization at the national, regional and global levels. And third, we support them through funding, technical and logistic support.

However, UNFPA's support would have been in vain had the parliamentarians themselves not been fully committed to the difficult and sensitive tasks related to reproductive health and rights, and had they not had the capacity to organize themselves and develop their arguments and advocacy.

This work is terribly important because despite progress, women in the Muslim countries in general and the Arab region in particular, continue to have low status and lack access to reproductive health information and quality services. High levels of illiteracy among women contribute to poor health and further marginalization. The UNDP Regional Human Development Report for 2002 clearly presents the seriousness of the situation.

High maternal mortality is a key health challenge facing most Arab and Muslim countries. In fact, maternal mortality is among the leading causes of death and disability among women of reproductive age. In the Arab region, only two countries in the region, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates, have managed to reduce maternal mortality to a level that is low by international standards and have achieved a high level, 95 per cent and above, of births attended by medical staff or skilled birth attendants.

Overall in the Arab States, complications of pregnancy and childbirth take the life of about 1 of every 48 women. This is extremely high compared to here in the United States, where the risk of dying during pregnancy and birth is less than 1 in 2,000.

No matter where a woman lives, giving birth should be a time of joy and celebration, not a sentence to death. But unfortunately, for more than half a million women around the world, who lack access to basic health services, what should be a time of great jubilation is instead a time of profound sorrow and loss. Globally speaking, of all the health sectors, reproductive health shows the largest gap between rich and poor people. Of all health statistics, maternal mortality shows the largest gap between rich and poor countries. It is the most obvious measurement of discrimination against women and the most obvious manifestation of their disfranchisement and denial of human rights. And the Arab region is not an exception to this conclusion.

As I said before, UNFPA is working with parliamentarians in the region to improve the status of women and improve reproductive health through active networking.

Specifically, we are now undertaking a very exciting but also very sensitive comprehensive review of legislation related to adolescent needs and rights and the responsibilities of parents and the protection of women against gender-based violence in the Arab region. The long-term objective is to promote a better understanding of adolescent needs and issues among policy makers, legislators, health service providers, parents and community leaders. We also aim at addressing issues of gender-based violence, and to intensify advocacy activities against female genital cutting and violence against women and girls, and in favour of better nutrition, health and education for girls.

The study is being conducted in five countries: Tunisia, Morocco, Oman, Jordan and Sudan. The types of legislation to be reviewed include the Constitution; penal, civil and family codes; international treaties that have been ratified by the governments, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; and all other legislation, laws and regulations regarding human rights, relations between men and women, women's rights and the rights of children and adolescents.

Some of the laws to be reviewed deal with the physical, sexual and psychological violence within the family, including domestic violence, dowry-related violence, honour killings, also with the rights and duties of spouses within marriage, and the laws on termination of marriage and widowhood. Other laws to be reviewed deal with gender violence occurring within the general community, including legislation related to rape, sexual violence and abuse, slavery and trafficking in women and girls, and child pornography. In addition, the review will examine legislation related to the provision of assistance and protection to victims of domestic violence.

UNFPA is very excited about this initiative and let me tell you why. One reason is because our overall goal in the Arab region is to improve the quality of life and to ensure universal reproductive health and gender equality and the empowerment of women. Another reason, and this one is a means to that end, is that this initiative aims to build reproductive health networks by increasing awareness of the legal situation in each country and building community support and resources for legislative reform to ensure better reproductive health and rights for women and men as well as adolescents.

To reinforce coordination and boost collaboration through networking, the Parliamentarian Population committees will be solicited for leadership and support. Each country will have a country team composed of parliamentarians, one physician who specializes in reproductive health; one anthropologist or social scientist; and one lawyer with experience in gender and human rights issues. These country teams will hopefully become the start of advocacy networks, working with sectoral ministries as well as with legislators and community leaders.

Already, there are different constituencies in each of the countries on which we are building. The whole idea is to collect and analyze data of specific issues related to gender violence and reproductive health and rights and to activate both the governmental and non-governmental sectors to own the data and the analysis, which can then become the evidence-base for legislative reform in each country. For instance, in Tunisia, where great social advances have occurred, there is a social advocacy network that exists and a family planning association that has historically been strong and active. In Oman, cooperation between UNFPA and the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Planning is well advanced in collecting and analyzing data on reproductive health issues, including gender issues, which would be the basis for proposals to be submitted to the Consultative body and the Shura Council for new legislation. In Jordan, there are several grassroots groups, especially the Family Care Association and Arab Women Organization, that we support to build local capacity. In Sudan, we have a good working relationship with Al-Afhad University in Khartoum and the Family Planning Association. And in Morocco, there are several very active grassroots organizations that have brought sensitive issues such as the sexual exploitation of minors, HIV/AIDS, and the lack of access to reproductive health information and services to the attention of the Ministry for Women, which now has these issues on its agenda. So there is a foundation that has been built in each country and on which we hope to expand.

When the study is completed in each country, the findings will be presented at national workshops in order to build consensus and ownership at the national level for legal change. The final report with recommendations will then be submitted to the national parliaments in each of the five countries. Our aim is to link them, and others, with the Parliamentarian group on Population and Development in their own countries and across the Arab region.

We are focusing specifically on youth because this is the largest youth group ever in the Arab region. More than half of the population is under the age of 25, and these young people are demanding education, reproductive health knowledge and services. Of course, they are also demanding employment and housing opportunities. They are demanding their right to a life that is dignified and that ensures that all their needs are met. They are demanding that we deliver on our promises to them.

And I would like to close my statement today by bringing this story full circle. At the beginning, I mentioned that reproductive health is more than an individual matter. I would like to stress that reproductive health information and services are often matters of life and death, as is illustrated in the case of maternal mortality. And these issues are also matters that have an impact on overall social and economic development.

Today, the population of the Arab region is expected to increase by more than 50 per cent in the next 20 years, from 284 million people today to 470 million people by the year 2025. This will place increased pressure on governments to find solutions to pressing economic, social and environmental issues. Access to reproductive health services, including voluntary family planning, and access to education are critical. Our experience at UNFPA has shown that when women can make their own choices about family size, they usually choose to have fewer children. Also, educated women usually choose to have smaller families. So there is a tremendous need to ensure universal access to reproductive health and education as governments agreed in 1994 at the International Conference on Population and Development, in Cairo.

Thank you.

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