"Building Bridges for Human Development" -- Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

25 Apr 2002

Thank you for the kind introduction and thank you for inviting me to speak tonight about the role of culture and religion in population and family planning. These issues are very important to me and to my organization, the (UNFPA). And they are central to the success of the many programmes we fund in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the Middle East to empower women and to improve the health and well-being of people, families and nations.

Family planning, population, reproductive health and reproductive rights are issues that provoke strong opinions because they touch on vital aspects of religion and culture-and yet, these sensitive issues are the subject of international agreement and consensus.


Eight years ago in Cairo, at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 governments agreed that they should advance gender equality and the empowerment of women, eliminate violence against women and girls, and ensure women's ability to control their own fertility. They agreed that these principles are the cornerstones of population and development policies and that population decisions are individual decisions. They agreed on a set of goals including universal access to primary education and reproductive health services, and the reduction of infant, child and maternal mortality. In doing so, they moved global population policy away from a fixation on numbers and quotas to a focus on human rights, of which women's rights are indivisible, and human well-being.

The 20-year Programme of Action emphasizes human dignity and potential, the importance of education, and calls for the elimination of all practices that discriminate against women. It affirms that reproductive rights embrace certain human rights that are already recognized in national laws, international human rights instruments, and other consensus documents. The agreement recognizes the basic right of all couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children and to have the information and the means to do so, as well as the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health. It also includes their right to make decisions concerning reproduction free of discrimination, coercion and violence.

The success of the ICPD is a triumph for consultation and partnership, of discussion and negotiation among all countries and all cultures, on one of the thorniest and most divisive subjects on the United Nations agenda. In order to ensure the inclusion of all countries into the consensus process, the agreement stipulates that the implementation of the recommendations is: "The sovereign right of each country, consistent with national laws and development priorities, with full respect for the various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds of its people, and in conformity with universally recognized international human rights."

The Controversy Goes On

And yet, there is no doubt that, despite agreement, these issues continue to generate controversy. In fact, reaching consensus in the first place came after long, difficult, passionate and even angry arguments over the text. The underlying question was how far can the North push for a liberal agenda and how far can the South protect and/or preserve its own identity expressed through its religious beliefs and cultural values. This conflict eventually made some Muslim countries form a close alliance with some Catholic countries, and most importantly, with the Vatican. This pattern repeated itself in the 1995 Beijing Fourth World Conference on Women and its five-year review two years ago. Most recently, this conflict was clearly seen last June at the General Assembly special session on HIV/AIDS, with alliances being formed among the Vatican, the Organization of Islamic Conference, and the United States.

Within the United Nations Population Fund, we are currently engaged in a process of strengthening our programming in culture and religion to become more effective in meeting our mandated goals and in responding to the opportunities and challenges we face.

Multilateral organizations like the UNFPA must respond to increasing cultural challenges by helping countries, communities and individuals link universal principles with their own cultural values.

This theme has become a very popular one after the tragic events of 11 September. There is increasing awareness of the need to reduce poverty and injustice, to increase participation and opportunity, to build on the universal values and principles that unite us, and to understand and respect the positive traditions that are present in every culture.

We are living in a new environment that is driven by the process of globalization-an environment that has made all of us face a new phase of human existence and interaction. It is an environment that could lead to prosperity or to destruction, and we must navigate its turbulence together so that we will all be safe.

The UNFPA is committed to women's empowerment and equality, and to universal access by 2015 to reproductive health care, which includes voluntary family planning, care during pregnancy and birth, and prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS.

Of course, we know that we cannot achieve these goals alone. We need to strengthen and expand alliances and partnerships to get results. Involving religious leaders and believers in promoting reproductive health is basic to the success of sexual and reproductive health programmes around the world.

Religion Counts

Religion is a powerful motivating force. I can name five main reasons why religion counts when addressing such a sensitive agenda as the Programme of Action for Population and Development that guides our efforts.

First, religions share a common moral position with regard to the vulnerable in societies and this moral concern meets the concerns of the United Nations for justice, compassion, solidarity, equality and respect. Furthermore, most people worldwide derive their values from religious beliefs.

Secondly, religion counts because it is a safe haven for people. It is a way of trying to bring order and meaning to the chaos of the rapid changes that are taking place-chaos that is often perceived in the South to be a result of globalization, growing inequality, poverty, and military conflict- in other words, a result of an unjust global system.

Thirdly, religions have constituencies who serve in public and political spheres who decide on major issues, such as policies, resources and programmes. Religions have constituencies who are beneficiaries of such programmes, and who are capable of mobilizing communities that are empowered to articulate their demands.

Fourthly, religions have institutions that are well-established in communities and provide much-needed services to the poor, the disadvantaged and the excluded. Constituencies respect their clergy and see them as both spiritual and societal leaders. Consequently, religious leaders exert an influence on how people think and behave.

And finally, religion counts because the dialogue within the United Nations between North and South, and East and West has been about culture and religion, as well as about the politics of power. Thus, the tension ends up being a political confrontation over religious beliefs and cultural values; conflict between the belief and value systems of the various societies.

Culture, Religion and the United Nations

There is change, however, and a growing understanding by the North of this dimension of the history and experience of the South, which impacts on development efforts. We tend to forget that the societies of the North have gone through a similar process many years ago and that the societies of the South are new and emerging, most of them got their independence from the 1940s.

The United Nations, with its 189 Member States, is a universal, inclusive organization designed to represent "We the Peoples". So, it has to adopt a value system that respects the dignity and integrity of men and women and their right to a better life. All religions recognize this right although they express it in different words.

The intergovernmental process of setting universal standards differs at the United Nations from the corporate-driven process of globalization, which seems to assume uniform values and behaviours across all borders, or some kind of uniculture. This aspect of cultural globalization brings about resistance by various communities because it is perceived to ignore, threaten and deny their identities as expressed by religious beliefs and cultural values.

The struggle that we witness today in many regions to preserve identity through culture and religion is a sign that people do not want one global identity or an identity they perceive as imposed from the outside. Rather, they want to work with universal principles in their own way- through their own cultures and religions.

In our development efforts in poor countries, we need to be inclusive in our vision of issues, create common ground where all societies find themselves, and work with people at the community level, so they can express their own beliefs and values for the improvement of the quality of life.

We may not believe in what they do, we may not agree with them, but we need to have the vision, the compassion and the commitment to understand them and support them as they translate universal principles into codes, messages, words, ways of doing things, in their own way. Our common objective, as stated in the Millennium Declaration, is to foster freedom from want and freedom from fear. Our role as development agents is to create an environment that leads to positive results.

UNFPA and Religion and Culture

In the field, at the country level, people, including our staff in the country offices, face real life and death situations: women die as they give birth, young people die of HIV/AIDS, teenage girls drop out of school and become pregnant, women face violence of various forms and young people see a future that may be full of opportunities but not for them. Ways to deal with this anxiety, anger and confusion have to be found and often they are found through religious messages and institutions and community-based programmes.

In many developing countries, the issues of sexuality and reproductive health and rights are taboo; they belong to the very private space. It is so private that it belongs to the person only, deeply locked in his/her mind. The International Conference on Population and Development has brought these private and sensitive issues out into the public. And people have sometimes reacted according to their internalized system of values and beliefs. And it takes real change in mindset and behaviour to open such private thoughts for scrutiny in the public sphere. One effective way could be through religious and cultural partnerships, because they help in legitimizing the introduction of the private thoughts and beliefs into the public sphere.

Over the years, the United Nations Population Fund has partnered with religious institutions and faith-based organizations to fashion ground-breaking initiatives to advance common goals and to save lives. Many religious leaders have been supportive of efforts to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, to encourage safe motherhood and to uphold the dignity of women and men by affirming their moral capacity to make personal decisions concerning their own reproduction. In our work around the world, we have found that building alliances with and involving members of religious traditions are factors that can actually determine a programmes success or failure. This is especially critical in traditional societies where women's actions to regulate fertility may disturb a social contract and where control over women is strong.

Just last week I had the opportunity to meet in Nairobi the Archbishop of Kenya and we talked about our joint project to prevent HIV infection among adolescents. It was an interesting meeting since it was clear where the Church ends and where our work begins. The Church provides information on all four methods of prevention of HIV/AIDS- abstinence, being faithful to one partner and condom use, in other words - what we call ABC, as well as delaying the age of sexual relations. However, the Church counsels youth on the basis of abstinence. Should the adolescent choose not to follow this method, he or she is referred to reproductive health services provided by the Government or by non-governmental organizations, many of whom we support. Thus, it is a realistic and pragmatic way to deal with a contemporary deadly issue.

In response to my question about the content of his sermon, the Archbishop informed me that he speaks about HIV/AIDS as a disease, like any other disease but more deadly. He emphasizes that it is neither a sin nor a punishment for a sin. He asks his constituency to respect and care for the persons living with HIV/AIDS. And he told me that the Church provides a social support system through its various community outreach programmes.

In Ethiopia, where more than 10 per cent of adults (15 - 49 years) are infected with HIV/AIDS, we are working with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has about 40 per cent of this population under its wings, to break down barriers about discussing AIDS and other health issues. Over time, the dialogues expanded to include such issues as gender equality and women's empowerment and the Church gradually became more open to the use of condoms to prevent HIV infection. Eventually, the Church went a step further by calling for the elimination of female genital cutting and teenage marriage.

In the West African nation of Niger, we hosted an international colloquium on Islam and Population that was attended by about 100 Muslim theologians and opinion leaders from 27 African, Arab and Asian countries. At the end of the meeting, they issued a declaration of Islamic support for family planning that urges religious leaders to study demographic conditions in their countries and to sensitize and mobilize their communities around these critical issues.

In Cairo, UNFPA has been a long-standing partner of Al-Azhar University, one of the world's leading Islamic institutions, where we assisted in the establishment of the International Centre on Population Research. Many studies on various aspects of family planning and reproductive health within the context of Islam have been issued by the centre.

In Senegal, we are reaching men through a network of religious leaders that we helped create who talk about family planning and sexuality during Friday prayers.

Let me give you an example from Bangladesh. About 20 years ago, there was considerable resistance to family planning programmes in Bangladesh because there was a perception within the country that Islam is opposed to family planning. In 1983, the national family planning association established its own Islamic Research Cell, which organized orientation programmes on family planning for imams and marriage registrars. Well-respected religious scholars presented their arguments showing that there was no basis in the sources of the Islamic tradition that opposed family planning and smaller families. Today, religious opposition has been reduced considerably in Bangladesh and imams have been preaching in favour of family planning. In fact, each year we train a large number of imams and they then organize special meetings in their villages to explain the compatibility of Islam with reproductive health, reproductive rights and gender equality.

Another interesting story comes from Zimbabwe, where we support various activities with religious leaders to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. For many years, we have lent support and funding to integrate a discussion of reproductive health issues into the training of pastors in the United Theological College and various churches throughout the country. During a bishops' meeting held this year, the Zimbabwe Council of Churches agreed to set up a secretariat to coordinate and spearhead church activities to work on AIDS prevention at the national level.

What was most significant in Zimbabwe, however, was a workshop we funded where church leaders of six denominations agreed to the use of condoms for couples to prevent HIV transmission from husbands to wives so that mothers and babies can remain HIV-free. Only a year earlier, some members of these same churches had insisted that the use of condoms was morally offensive and considered a sin.

As a result of these initiatives in Zimbabwe, church leaders have volunteered to work for the care and support of people living with AIDS, and to campaign against the silence and stigma surrounding AIDS.

Another interesting example of progress with religious groups can be found in the Sudan, where we sponsored a workshop on female genital cutting that was attended by religious leaders and Islamic lawyers, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. The workshop led to a call for the ban of female genital cutting and a recommendation to policy makers that a law be passed banning the practice. I found a beautiful poster produced by the Ministry of Health, which says: "God created women in perfect shape, why are you deforming what God has created?" It is a religious message, but it is pro-woman and it speaks the language of the people.

In Ghana, we have supported an inter-faith coalition that has been able to reach 45,000 young people with information on sexual and reproductive health through radio programmes organized by Catholic, Protestant and Muslim leaders.

And in Guatemala, our strategy of establishing ties with the highest authorities in the Catholic Church has led to the passage of a new law last year that mandates that reproductive health be recognized as an integral part of the Government's development policies. This law enables Congress to assign funds specifically for reproductive health programmes and makes reproductive health education obligatory in schools.

This past February I visited Iran and President Mohammad Khatami told me that religions must be able to absorb changes that take place in societies so that they can survive and continue to provide spiritual meaning to people's lives. In particular, he spoke about the need to accelerate legislation that grants and protects the rights of women in our Muslim societies.

During the past decade, Iran has made tremendous strides in providing voluntary family planning and health services to women. Today, the population structure of Iran looks like that of a developed country-the average woman chooses to have two children and young women make up more than 40 per cent of the country's university students. Teenage pregnancy is very uncommon and three-quarters of women have access to and use contraception.

Meanwhile, a few weeks ago in Afghanistan, a group of white-bearded elders from a remote rural area paid a visit to the Minister for Women's Affairs. The men begged for a health facility where none exists. They were actually crying as they spoke of a woman who went insane after seven days in labour. The woman died two days later, according to the Minister.

My agency, the United Nations Population Fund, has been designated by the United Nations, at the request of the Minister of Public Health, to coordinate reproductive health care in Afghanistan, as a priority for national reconstruction. The need for better care couldn't be more urgent.

Today, one in 15 Afghan women die from complications of pregnancy and birth. That's 53 women every day, 17,000 a year. One in four children die before the age of five. As in many poor countries, early age at marriage and frequent high-risk pregnancies combined with malnutrition and little or no prenatal care create a deadly situation for mothers and their children.


In every region, the concepts of equality and social justice, and the principle of human dignity guide our work. The dimension of improving the quality of life and reducing poverty and inequality allow diverse religious institutions and faith-based organizations to participate in efforts to advance reproductive health. We have found that the programmes that have emerged from such partnerships have acquired an acute sensitivity to local cultures without compromising the universality of women's rights and without sacrificing the basic tenets of religions. In fact, in many cases, religion has enabled us to bridge the gap between local cultures and universal human rights. In working with visionary religious leaders and adherents of religions who are convinced of the need for change, we are building an effective coalition together with other partners in civil society for gender equality, reproductive health and reproductive rights. We are building bridges for human development, and we are helping to dispel the dangerous and deceptive misinformation that we are anti-life and anti-family-claims that couldn't be further from the truth.

What is needed is an expanded space for dialogue, understanding, sharing of experiences on how religion and culture can help improve the lives of the poorest of the poor; and how we can work with communities to translate universal principles and development goals into concrete programmes that respect people's identity, beliefs and cultures.

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