Development Challenges and Population Dynamics in a Changing Arab World

26 June 2013

Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin at the Regional Conference on Population and Development in the Arab States in Cairo

Excellency, Dr. Mohammed Moustafa, Minister of Health and Population of Egypt,
Excellency, Mr. Nabil El Arabi, Secretary-General of the League of Arab States,
Excellency, Mme. Rima Khalaf, Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Western Asia,
Distinguished representatives of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, Mr. Diop, and United Nations Development Group, Dr. Sima Bahous,

Distinguished delegates,
Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to be with you today for the opening of the Arab States Regional Conference on Population and Development.

It is especially fitting that we gather here in Cairo, the city that gave birth to that great vision nearly 20 years ago that what matters about human beings is not their numbers but the quality of their lives.

Where better to start the series of ICPD beyond 2014 regional review conferences than in Cairo where it all began.

I would like to thank the League of Arab States, His Excellency Secretary General Nabil El Arabi, for hosting this conference, and I am also grateful for their strong and active support to make this conference possible. I also appreciate the valuable contributions of the African Union and the Economic Commission of Africa to the ICPD review process.

Nearly 20 years ago, the Cairo International Conference on Population and Development changed forever the way we think about population and development.

It was here in Cairo that delegates from all regions and cultures agreed that sexual and reproductive health is a basic human right.

It was here in Cairo that representatives from 179 governments recognized that solid societies are built on men and women; that ensuring their human rights, particularly the rights of women and young people, is the key to sustainable social and economic development.

It was here in Cairo that the world agreed that population is not just about counting people, but about making sure that every person counts.

That is the dream and the promise of Cairo.

  • that every human being has economic security;
  • that they have the right to decide whether, when and how often to have children;
  • that no woman should die giving life;
  • that everyone has the information, education and services to live responsible lifestyles, to protect themselves from preventable diseases, such as AIDS, and to fulfill their greatest potential;
  • that no one should have to face discrimination or physical harm because of their gender or any other characteristic;
  • that gender equality and women’s empowerment are cornerstones of sustainable development;
  • that refugee and displaced populations have access to adequate health, including reproductive health services;
  • that all of us live in harmony with our environment.

Since September 1994, when this happened in Cairo, governments around the world have initiated policies and programmes to implement the ICPD Programme of Action. Some have been more successful than others.

In this region, 19 out of 22 countries completed the ICPD beyond 2014 global survey. From this survey, we know that great progress has been achieved in many areas. We thank your Governments for the commitment, leadership and support that have enabled us and so many people to live healthy, fulfilling and dignified lives.

It is impossible to speak of the progress countries have made in implementing the ICPD Programme of Action without acknowledging the contributions of religious institutions, civil society organizations, including youth and women’s groups, and parents, whose daily decisions to educate their children, especially girls, are enabling them to reach their fullest potential and live in dignity.

The analysis of the data from the region confirms your commitment to addressing poverty, increasing women’s access to information and counseling on sexual and reproductive health, keeping more girls in secondary school and creating employment for the disabled. You also reported achievements in increasing women’s access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services, including maternal health care. Progress was also reported in increasing women's representation in political processes and public life and their participation in the formal and informal economy.

Many governments have enacted laws criminalizing violence against women and girls, developed work plans and established institutions for the implementation of these laws.

Governments have also instituted concrete procedures and mechanisms for youth to participate in programme planning and evaluation.

In the name of all of those lives that you have transformed by the life-saving Cairo agenda, I thank you for all that you have done for your people.

Yet despite much progress since Cairo, we still have a long way to go towards the full implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.

The region faces a number of challenges—challenges that have been highlighted by your Governments in various fora.

Among these are challenges related to poverty and income disparities, social exclusion, and addressing the needs of two generations: young people and old.

There are challenges related to the status and rights of women and girls, and to ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health services, including addressing the unmet needs of millions of women for family planning. Those who want it and cannot get it.

And there are challenges related to urbanization, migration, complex emergencies and conflict, the environment and climate change.

The survey showed notable gaps in the attention paid by your Governments to urban planning and management and urban services, to out-of-school youth, to data collection and to environmental management.

One key message from the review, which looks back to the ICPD outcome 19 years ago, is that gender equality and universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights are crucial to sustainable development. Keeping the momentum on these issues is not only the right thing to do; it is the smart thing to do.

This is the unfinished work of the ICPD and the Millennium Declaration. Unfortunately, the MDGs that are the most off-track, including in this region, are those directly linked to achieving gender equality, such as reducing maternal mortality and ensuring the rights of women.

Across the world, women and girls consistently face a range of barriers to equality – wage gaps, gaps in access to secondary education, gender-based violence, child marriage and female genital mutilation. The poor and otherwise socially disadvantaged are further marginalized by crippling combinations of gender discrimination and poverty discrimination, which makes these women poorer still.

It is unacceptable that in the 21st century girls are still subjected to harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation/cutting and child marriage. There are many girls whose lives are cut short by these practices. Their dreams and aspirations and hopes for the future are curtailed.

It is unacceptable that girls continue to be subjected to practices that violate their rights to health, to physical and mental integrity, and to a fulfilling life.

The Holy Quran, as you are well aware, addresses eloquently the question of equality and mutual respect, “The believers, men and women, are protectors of one another.”

Tackling the gender inequalities and critical barriers that prevent women and girls from exercising their rights and empowering them must be at the heart of our efforts to create secure, sustainable, prosperous and resilient societies.

This must be at the heart of our efforts to protect one another.

The more than 600 million adolescent girls in the world have the right to realize their full potential. A significant number of them are in this region.

We have seen inspiring examples of what can happen when adolescent girls are enabled to reach their full potential, when they are educated, healthy, skilled and empowered.

I have personally met a girl from this region whose life has been transformed after undergoing fistula repair. She went back to school and became a community midwife to save other women from a similar fate, and is now a powerful example to women around the world. I have also met a midwife empowered through education, who is now extending life-saving maternal health services to women in her community, travelling via TukTuk to the homes of village women. She has also created a job for her brother, who drives the TukTuk.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

This region is experiencing a rapid increase in the number of people aged 60 years and older. It is projected that their numbers will reach 27 million in 2015 – an increase of 5 million people in just 5 years. Governments must ensure that older people can live healthy, productive lives that make full use of their skills and abilities.

At the same time, we also see that the region is undergoing a youth bulge: Young people aged 15-24 make up one-fifth of the region’s population – more than 70 million people. This burgeoning youth population is your region’s challenge and yet greatest opportunity.

Much has been said about young people in the region, about their inventiveness and energy, their desire to change their conditions and their societies, as we have seen in the recent circumstances in many of the countries of the region.

Given the opportunity, they can contribute enormously to the development of your countries and to a better future for everybody.

Fully engaged, educated, healthy and productive adolescents and youth can help break the cycle of poverty and strengthen their families, communities and nations.

We need to ensure that they have access to the services, information and education they desire. Governments must invest; we don’t get services if they don’t invest.

We need to ensure that their potential is harnessed to strengthen human capital in the region and power your economies.We need to ensure that they become the vital asset they can be.

We cannot, and we should not, be satisfied that this region has both the lowest labour force participation rate and the highest rate of unemployment for youth and women. We have to change this.

We should not accept that our fellow human beings, especially young people, die from preventable causes because they are denied information and services, including education. And we cannot be satisfied if any individuals or groups of people are denied the opportunity to lead healthy and dignified lives, including due to the incidence of sexually transmitted infections and HIV.

We should not allow negative social norms to deny any women or girl access to health, education and the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to her family and society and lead a dignified life free from violence and abuse.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the two decades since Cairo the number of humanitarian crises has exploded, and it is safe to say that no country in this region has been unaffected either by the movement of refugees into or out of it or by internal displacement.

World Refugee Day, June 20, saw 1.7 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Egypt and about 6.8 million people affected by the crisis inside Syria. I do not think we could have envisioned such a disaster at the time of the ICPD, but I do think we need to respond in line with the principles that were laid out in ICPD Programme of Action – that is to meet the needs of refugees.

The prevailing humanitarian emergencies in the region undoubtedly challenge the achievement of development goals, the enjoyment of human rights and the preservation of human dignity, all of which are engrained in the ICPD programme of Action.

I have visited refugee camps in Kenya, Turkey and Jordan and seen just how vital our work at UNFPA has been in saving the lives of women forced to deliver miles away from any health facility or who have been subjected to violence.

The ICPD Programme of Action has as objectives, to “ensure effective protection of and assistance to refugee [and displaced] populations, with particular attention to the needs and physical security of refugee women and refugee children” and “to provide adequate health, education and social services for refugees and displaced persons”. I would have to say that of the many goals of the ICPD, this is one area where we have experienced serious gaps and must do better. I hope to engage with your Governments to move decisively on this, to raise the scope and impact of our current efforts.

Ladies and Gentlemen

We believe, as our leaders did here in 1994, that every human being matters.

Recognizing the uniqueness of each individual, with respect for their rights and dignity, is key to formulating policies that respond to each person’s needs.

As we discuss the way forward for this region, let us be guided by The Holy Quran, which tells us: "O mankind! We have created you from a male and a female and made you into nations and tribes so that you may know one another."

These are challenging times for the region and the world. In your discussions this week there are many questions I trust you’ll think about.

How can we take into account in our future planning the aspirations, rights and freedoms of mothers and fathers, the working woman and the adolescent girl, young men and women, the elderly, the disabled, the displaced and the refugee, the poor and excluded?

How do we factor changing population dynamics into development planning?

How do we ensure that individuals and communities are empowered to respond to a changing world in a manner that enhances the well-being of people?

How has the world changed since Cairo and what does it mean for our collective future?
There is so much that we can do together. We know what needs to be done. But this is only possible if we actively engage Governments, civil society organizations, other development partners, the media, the private sector, academia, and other non-state actors.
I hope you will think about all the region’s 70 million young people that I want to commit to your hands and how we can give them the support they need and deserve to fulfill their incredible potential.
A girl born in 1994 would be 19 today. Are we fulfilling our promise to her and her generation? Let us promise to allow them to make choices and to commit our collective responsibility to helping them meet their full potential.

I thank you.

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