High-Level Meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action

22 Sep 2021

Statement by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem during Roundtable 1, "Reparations, racial justice and equality for people of African descent", at the High-Level Meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Durban Declaration and Programme of Action [as prepared for delivery].


Madam Chair,
Distinguished delegates, ​

Addressing delegates in Durban 20 years ago, President Nelson Mandela said: "Racism is an ailment of the mind and the soul. It kills many more than any contagion."

For centuries, minority status meant disadvantage. Durban changed the conversation, underscoring that everyone has the right to determine their own destiny as an inheritor of individual dignity, individual human rights, and a legitimate claim to recognition and respect.

In Durban, I saw with my own eyes the power of voice, inclusion and that factor of self-determination. I saw it in the pride of people of African descent, and in the eyes of strong rural women who gathered to state their case. I saw the difference Durban made when, after being told all your life that you are untouchable, the world finally acknowledges your equal worth.

Yet today, two decades after the world vowed to eliminate racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and intolerance as a matter of utmost priority, we continue to see what years of structural racism, marginalization and systemic discrimination have wrought.

As we march towards 2030, inequalities remain rampant.

Let us never forget that women and girls of African descent bear the heavy burden of both sexism and racism and have too often been denied reproductive justice. What’s more, lack of disaggregated data means the challenges they face are often invisible to policymakers.

They are more likely to be victims of violence, trafficking and exploitation. More likely to be under-employed or unemployed, regardless of level of education, and 3 to 4 times more likely to die in childbirth.

COVID-19 was a wake-up call. It exposed huge fault lines and a shadow pandemic of gender-based violence, with communities of colour and indigenous peoples suffering disproportionately.

Disregard for the lives and rights of people of African descent, including by law enforcement officials tasked with protecting them, continue to spark protests across the globe.

These historical injustices need to be addressed in a fair and equitable way. This will take the concerted efforts of each and every one of us. It is a job for schools, for communities, for businesses and organizations, and for government at all levels.  It is a dialogue that we ourselves are having within the United Nations system.

We know that addressing the root causes of racism is key to real and lasting change. This means building political will, expanding participation, funding policies, shifting discriminatory laws, practices and social norms, and ending the culture of inaction and impunity.

UNFPA has a long history of standing up for the rights and choices of all. We are addressing data gaps, working with communities to drive social change, and building communities of practice to ensure more diverse, equitable and inclusive health systems and services.


Excellencies, Distinguished delegates,

The cure for the ailment of racism, as President Mandela also alluded to, is within our reach. We have the power to change, the will to change, and the road map for change.

Together, at long last, let us seize it and move together towards recognition, justice and development for all.

Thank you.

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