Fifteen Years After: Revisiting the International Conference on Population and Development

Fifteen Years After: Revisiting the International Conference on Population and Development
Stan Bernstein of UNFPA moderated the panel discussion with Nafis Sadik, Fread Sai and Francis Kissling. Photo: UNFPA.
  • 05 May 2009

NEW YORK — Fifteen years after a conference in Cairo captured the world’s attention, some of its key leaders had a conversation about what it all meant, to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and to the world, and to those who helped make it a success.

The leaders included Nafis Sadik the former executive director of UNFPA who served as Secretary-General of the International Conference on Population and Development; Fred Sai, Special Adviser to the President of Ghana and former Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood, who chaired ICPD; and Francis Kissling, former Director of Catholics for Choice, who participated in the ICPD preparations and conference as an NGO representative.

In a wide-ranging panel discussion, their enthusiasm for the ICPD Programme of Action and the process that led up to it gave the audience a sense of what made the forum such a galvanizing moment for UNFPA, and for the world.

The 1994  conference was a watershed in the sense that it reconciled a number of competing development issues, said Ms. Kissling. Through wide ranging and sometimes contentious debate, the conference found a way to unify the creative tension between a number of dualities, including between population and environment, women’s rights and demographic issues, and between reproductive health and family planning, she added.

The panelists agreed that a major element in its success was the strong participation – for the first time in the history of major international conferences -- of non-governmental organizations.  Over 100 NGOs sat at the negotiating table in the preparatory process, said Ms. Sadik, and they made their opinions clear by clapping wildly or hissing at speakers.

“We think it was our conference,” said Ms. Kissling. “Foundations funded women’s groups in the South so they could come to the table with power and money to deal with sex and reproduction in  a way that was very important.”

According to the panelists, the event captured a profound shift in thinking about population and development. “It was about human rights, and about women’s rights holding the key to development,” said Sai. “It was not about family planning and not based on demographics. The focus was how to put women at centre stage.”

“The conference brought up issues for the first time at this high level, including unsafe abortion and female genital mutilation  and male behavior in the household,” said Sadik. “And the recommendations have been repeated verbatim in consequent UN Conferences including the Millennium Summit, such as education for all and reducing maternal mortality.”

The conference captured a subtle but profound shift in the way we think about population and development, said Kissling. “But it was a crystallization of a social process that had already happened. We began to look at questions of sexuality and reproduction within a broad social, economic, cultural and human rights context.”

In looking ahead, the panelists called for a sharp focus on the achievement of universal access to reproductive health by 2015, and the mobilization of young people and the development community to more actively support the visionary ICPD agenda. They noted that the economic climate has changed since 1994, which means that advocacy about and commitment to the vision of the ICPD is more important than ever.

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