Educating and Empowering Women: Meeting Long-term Needs in South and Central Asia

7 March 2002
Author: UNFPA

First of all I would like to thank you for inviting me to be a part of this Conference on Borderless Giving. I know you are all extremely busy people, and it is very heartening to know that you have the energy and commitment to discuss the importance of educating and empowering women. What brings us together today is the fact that your institutions and mine are based on borderless giving and thus we must put our hands, hearts and minds together to reach women and girls across all borders.

Also I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all, women and men, Happy International Women's Day. We must translate the celebration into immediate action in support of women in poor countries on this globe.

Educating and empowering women is an issue that is very close to my heart. I myself am where I am today because my parents insisted that I receive an education and because my government of Saudi Arabia had a policy that offered me concrete support.

I have spent my career in the United Nations working to empower women. And I have done a lot of work in the Arab region. As a Muslim woman, I have been deeply saddened and angered to see some extremists twist the values of Islam to oppress women and promote terror--it is the same Islam that motivated my parents to educate me and that empowered me to reach where I am. It is frightening and it is unfortunate that some people use religion to deny the basic human rights of people; as you know it is women and children who suffer the most.

For me, the voices of the women of Afghanistan hold the key to the future for they are the voices of all women deprived of their human rights, including the very simple right to life - that is the right not to die while giving birth. Despite decades of war and brutality, they speak of hope. They represent a beautiful silk banner floating along the ancient silk route. Their message transcends ideology and religion. It represents common aspirations that are shared by women and men from diverse cultures around the world. They want peace; they want to participate in their government; they want education and healthcare for themselves and their children. They want to exercise their human rights. When all the interest of the world emerged to support the Afghan women, I was asked during an interview with NPR about what these women want. I said that they want what every woman in the world wants- peace and security, health and education for themselves and their children. But I also said that we should listen to the women themselves and follow their leadership, for they know what they want.

After 23 years of conflict and five years of the repressive Taliban, the situation in Afghanistan is unique. The standard of education is among the lowest in the world, and the country has the largest gender gap. Only 3 per cent of all girls are enrolled in primary education. Needless to say, the more that is invested in education, the more Afghanistan will benefit from its returns.

However, the country will never be strong and healthy unless its people are the same. This is true in every country. Right now, the health status in Afghanistan is among the worst in the world, and measures must be taken immediately--and they are being taken immediately by the United Nations Population Fund and many NGO partners and sister United Nations organizations. I would like to salute the national and international NGOs that have withstood all pressures and remained steadfast in Afghanistan throughout the conflict.

Afghanistan's Interim Minister of Public Health, Dr. Suheila Siddiqi, has asked the United Nations Population Fund to coordinate efforts to improve the reproductive health of Afghan women and we have already started to do just that. This past Saturday the first two of four cargo jets carrying equipment and supplies for rehabilitating three maternity hospitals arrived in Kabul.

As in other 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. One in four children in Afghanistan die before the age of 5. One in 15 women die in pregnancy and childbirth. Most of these deaths could be prevented with adequate healthcare and prompt treatment.

In neighbouring Pakistan, I met with President Pervez Musharraf two weeks ago. The President is committed to improving access to reproductive health and family planning and reducing rapid population growth in Pakistan and he promised to make a public statement to highlight the need for dealing with population growth. In our discussion, he said that if a woman from Medina, Saudi Arabia, can speak out about population issues, reproductive health and family planning, so can I. I guess that speaking out about population growth is more dangerous and explosive than speaking out about military and political matters!

I would like to say here a few words about the EC/UNFPA Reproductive Health Initiative (RHI) in Asia. In January 1997 the European Commission (EC) and UNFPA signed a Financing Agreement that provides 25 million ECU/Euros for the implementation by UNFPA of a four-year special initiative for reproductive health in Asia. It covers the following countries: Bangladesh, Cambodia, Lao PDR, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. UNFPA, European and national non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and non-profit organizations and institutions are contributing 5 million ECU in funds and facilities. The EC/UNFPA Reproductive Health Initiative in Asia is the largest cooperation arrangement between the European Commission, UNFPA and the non-governmental sector. Operational partners of the RHI include European and national NGOs, and academic institutions. Eligibility criteria for operational partners include the financial capacity to contribute 10 per cent of the programme cost.

Thanks to greater access to family planning and health services, women in the developing world today are having half as many children as they did 40 years ago, down from an average of 6 children per family in 1960 to three children today. This is a tremendous achievement for women-and their ability to chart their own lives. It is also a great contribution to the world and the stabilization of population growth.

But much work remains to be done. The world is changing rapidly and we must help countries and people benefit from this change. Today there is great inequality and injustice and this is a direct threat to human progress and global peace and security.

In the area of HIV/AIDS, there is an urgent need for both education and healthcare in the countries of Central and South Asia. And we could do more if we had more resources, which is especially critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Infection rates are rising in the region and greater prevention efforts are urgently needed. India has nearly 4 million citizens living with HIV/AIDS, more than in any other country besides South Africa. Infection rates are also increasing in the Central Asian republics due to injecting drug use and the high incidence of sexually transmitted infection, which increase the risk of HIV infection.

Preventing HIV/AIDS is one of the top priorities of the United Nations Population Fund and we target our efforts to young people, who are the most vulnerable to infection, to pregnant women who can pass the virus to their babies, and to women who must be cared for after delivering their babies.

The United Nations Population Fund relies on voluntary contributions, and the great bulk comes from governments. We have 126 donor countries, but 15 industrial countries provide 90 per cent of our budget. Some cut their contributions this year. Japan was forced to reduce its funding due to its financial situation. Germany, too, has reduced its contribution. Denmark cut its contribution because it has a new government with different policies. But every industrial nation supports us, some of them, like the Netherlands and Norway, with extreme generosity.

The big exception, so far this year, is the United States. A bi-partisan majority in both Houses of Congress approved a $34 million contribution to UNFPA for this year based on the budget proposal submitted by the President himself. But so far it has not been released by the Administration. It is held up, according to Senator Nancy Boxer, by domestic politics. She and 125 other Congressmen and women have signed a letter to the President calling for the release of the voted funds. We are grateful to the NGO community who expressed their support through letters to newspapers as well to the U.S. Administration. Your support would be appreciated.

Let me tell you about the meaning of the loss of U.S. funding. It certainly has a severe impact on UNFPA's programme and the developing countries it serves. US$34 million for family planning would be enough to prevent: 2 million unwanted pregnancies; nearly 800,000 induced abortions; 4,700 maternal deaths; nearly 60,000 cases of serious maternal illness; and over 77,000 infant and child deaths.

Alternatively, US$ 34 million would provide one-third of the annual needs for mass information campaigns aimed at behaviour change for HIV/AIDS prevention. The same amount would pay for 13 per cent of the condoms needed for STD/HIV/AIDS prevention worldwide, or 13 per cent of the training costs needed to ensure that half of the secondary school teachers are trained to educate young people in HIV/AIDS prevention. There, you see, how important your support is.

Regrettably, I will be leaving this afternoon in order to be in New York tonight for tomorrow's ceremony at the United Nations for International Women's Day. As you all know, Mrs. Laura Bush will be participating in the ceremony and some of us will have the chance to greet her in person. What do you think I should do when I meet her? Should I whisper to her, asking for her support to release the funding approved by the Congress but held by the Administration? I know I will say a few words to remind her of the importance of supporting women all over the world and supporting UNFPA that is doing this work. All support is important and your support is just as critical.

So, let me tell you of another way you can support UNFPA. You can join Bill Gates, Ted Turner, the Hewlett and Packard Foundations, Rockefeller Foundation and many other private groups and individuals, and support our work directly. We have many more requests in the pipeline than we can fund, and the need is growing all the time. Remember, we have at present the largest youthful generation below 24 years old, and they constitute almost 60 per cent of the population in developing and poor countries.

In our programmes, money goes a long way. A condom to prevent HIV infection costs 3 cents. A midwife can be trained for $150. Equipping an entire birthing facility in Kabul will cost $50,000. By contributing to the United Nations Population Fund, you are helping to save women's lives and improve human progress and well being. You are ensuring that the rights enjoyed by women in the developed countries, including education and health, can also be enjoyed by women in the developing countries. You are investing your money wisely, for you are investing in the present and the future; you are investing in peace and security in the long run.

We can, if we have the resources needed, reduce maternal mortality by 75 per cent in the next 15 years. Today, we lose one woman every minute to the consequences of pregnancy and childbirth.

If we cannot find the money for vital health and education goals, there is no prospect for ending poverty in our lifetimes, let alone halving it by 2015, as world leaders have called for in their Declaration of the Millennium Summit, held in September 2000. Good health and education are the very foundation for escaping from poverty and building a decent dignified life, based on the rights of all to development. Women especially have been left behind in the rush of change. They need our support to catch up. They need your support. It is as simple as that.

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