Unleashing the Power of Women and Girls: A 7 Billion Actions Special Event

13 September 2011
Author: UNFPA
Moderator Phil Hay from the Human Development Network and panelist Monique Coleman in discussion with Dr. Regina Benjamin,U.S. Surgeon General.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — “Advancing the needs and rights of women and girls not only enhances their well-being and productivity, but it improves prospects for generations to come,” said the U.S. Department of State Global Health Initiative executive director, Ms. Lois Quam, at a panel discussion at National Geographic headquarters today.

The event, Unleashing the Power of Women and Girls, which is part of the 7 Billion Actions campaign led by UNFPA, brought together some 500 people to discuss the many challenges facing young women in a world of seven billion.

Invited panelists addressed a wide range of issues,from access to reproductive health to education and the empowerment of women. The event was kicked off by National Geographic president, Tim Kelly, with a video  examining specific challenges and solutions to the issues inherent in a world of seven billion people.

Ms. Quam emphasized the importance of reproductive health, affirming that family planning and reproductive health services, as well as effective contraceptive services and supplies are helping save the lives of women who would have otherwise died giving birth and avoid that their children become orphans as a result.

Family planning saves lives

“Family planning saves lives. It helps women have healthy families by allowing them to space births and have children during their healthiest years,” she affirmed.

UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, highlighted that 900 million young women in the world today do not have access to the information, opportunities or services they need. “They don’t have access to reproductive health and they cannot accede to high positions. We have to make sure that they know their rights so that they can reach their potential.”

Without the right opportunities, Dr. Osotimehin explained, girls experience too much too soon. “They leave school too early. They are married off and have children while children themselves, often at significant risks to their lives. In shocking numbers, they experience violence, are infected by HIV and join the labor force under unsafe conditions.”

Girls just want to go to school

Mentioning a recent mission to Africa, Dr. Osotimehin described his discussions with young people there. “Boys spoke beautifully; there were webmasters among them. They wanted to be part of the global community. Young girls, all they wanted was to be able to go to school. They didn’t have the same global perspective as the boys. We have to make sure that what I saw in the Horn of Africa is no more.”

UNFPA's Executive Director delivered opening remarks at the Washington event. Photos: Skip Brown.

Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, (USAID), stressed the importance of drawing on the world’s population wisdom to find the best solutions for each context.

He also announced that the agency will invest $10 million to enhance the political and economic rights of girls and women, and an additional $14 million in stipends for women to participate in peace processes around the world.

Poor reproductive health still a leading cause of death and disability

Although recent UN estimates indicate that maternal deaths declined by 34 per cent between 1990 and 2008 globally, poor sexual and reproductive health continues to be a source of concern, especially for young women.
“This is the leading cause of death and disability among women aged 15-49 in developing countries. Current estimates are that more than 200 million women want to use family planning but are unable to do so because they lack access to information or services, or the support of their husbands and their communities,” explained Ms. Quam.

She highlighted that birth spacing helps decrease infant death, and delaying childbirth and pregnancy beyond adolescence improves the health of infants and their likelihood of survival.

Peter Yeo, vice-president of the United Nations Foundation, one of the sponsors of the event, called attention to the interconnections between the global challenges we face. "We in the advocacy and policy communities tend to silo ourselves," he said. "We focus on voluntary family planning, or sustainable development, or democracy promotion, or HIV/AIDS – without taking the time to learn from each other about what works and what doesn’t."

Natalie Imbruglia talks about fistula

Singer and actress Natalie Imbruglia, talked about her travels as Virgin Unite ambassador and spokesperson for the Campaign to End Fistula, recalling the women she met who did not have a choice as to when to have children. Many of them, engulfed by extreme poverty, social inequality and unbalanced power relations, barely survived pregnancy and labour to live in pain, shame and isolation.

A lively panel discussion was moderated by Phil Hay.

“I met this woman who was gang raped in her teen years, got pregnant, had an obstructed labour and developed fistula. After many years of constant leaking and not knowing what her condition was, she got severely depressed. It was only when she came to the hospital to treat her depression that she learned that she had fistula and that it could be treated,” said Ms. Imbruglia.

“Every woman in the world should be able to deliver safely. In whatever way that we can, we have to raise awareness about this,” she added.

According to Ms. Imbruglia, it is important to include men and engage communities to help address fistula.
“The men I saw wanted their women to be healthy, but in most cases they just couldn’t afford it. And the health services are usually miles away from them. People are scared of what they don’t understand. We can help establish the conversation, empower women and then they will do the rest.”

Speaking out against harmful practices

For panelist Kakenya Ntaiya, a Kenyan activist against female genital mutilation/cutting, educating girls should always be the top priority. “Once you give girls an opportunity to do something different from what is expected, you put things in motion.”

A survivor of FGM/C herself, Ms. Ntaiya told the audience about a girl she met two years ago, who helped eliminate the practice in her own village.

“She was ten years old and her parents wanted to celebrate Christmas by cutting her. People don’t talk about it, it just happens. She knew that she needed to do something and decided to tell her teachers she didn’t want to be cut,” she said.

“Although there are laws against the practice, some communities still do it and it’s hard to change tradition. So the teachers organized a meeting to discuss the case with the community. Once they heard that young girl saying she didn’t want to be cut, many men from her village agreed that it was wrong. And the chief made all parents in the community sign an agreement saying that they wouldn’t do it with their daughters,” Ms. Ntaiya said.

A change in social norms is required

Alexandra Garita, an expert on international policy for the International Women’s Health Coalition, explained that changing social norms is a crucial step to eliminate harmful practices.

“Take, for instance, violence against women. It’s not only physical violence that we have to eliminate. There is also psychological violence, how a man talks to a woman, how she is perceived in her society.”

For Ms. Garita and other panelists, changes in the mindset of a population should start with young people: boys, their caregivers and role models should be able to teach them how to respect, empower and partner with women.

Ronan Farrow, director of the Global Youth Issues Office, U.S. Department of State, reminded that approximately 60 per cent of the current population under 30-years-old is female. “Kakenya told us about the challenges she faced in her country, but she also shows us how strong women can be.”

For him, the mass media plays a critical role in the empowerment of women. “There is only so much that governments and organized civil society can do. The private sector and especially the media are the third pillar.”

He also stressed that young people, especially young women, should be able to participate in the political processes: “Governments can facilitate this, but we need to make sure that women are smart and empowered to do so.”

Actress and United Nations youth champion Monique Coleman told the audience that this sort of empowerment also depends on the level of engagement of each individual. “I have had the opportunity to meet many young women in my travels. What I have noticed is their incredible resilience.”

Although she agreed that education helps change things, Ms. Coleman stressed that the people living in a specific context, once motivated to promote changes, would be better equipped to find solutions with the resources they have and taking into consideration the constraints they face.

“We are all role models”: Monique Coleman

When asked about the importance of role models like herself to create motivation among young people, she emphasized that everyone has the potential to affect other people’s lives: “We are all role models. Our actions are seen by everyone, especially young people.”

In his final remarks, Dr. Osotimehin pointed out that as the world approaches the milestone of 7 billion, too many people still suffer from poverty, poor health, discrimination and violence.

“Solving existing challenges is becoming more and more urgent—and I believe that we have yet to realize the vast potential, energy and talents of some two billion young people, among whom half, are girls.”

By investing in girls’ education and health, including sexual and reproductive health and family planning, the world can unleash their vast potential, he said.

“These girls are part of the largest youth population in history, and when they enter the workforce educated, skilled, and healthy, they can help put countries on a path to greater prosperity, peace, and progress. The benefits will go a long way in a girl’s lifetime, and for generations to come.”

— Reported by Etienne Franca

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