Population, Development and Human Rights

17 November 2003
Author: UNFPA

Good evening. Buenas Noches.

Madame President, Distinguished Ministers and Ombudsmen, Ambassadors, Parliamentarians, and Friends,

Me da mucho gusto estar en Panama.

It is a pleasure to be here in beautiful Panama. And it is an honour to address the Ibero-American Meeting of the Ombudsmen Federation.

As ombudsmen, you play a vital role in monitoring and safeguarding human rights. You play an important role in advocating for the rights of citizens in the countries that you represent. The network that you have created allows you to learn from each other and to move forward with wisdom and strength. The job of ombudsman is difficult, but the oversight you provide benefits all.

You are friends and allies of the United Nations in the global quest to create a world where people live in dignity, free of fear and free from want.

It is this vision that guided the Millennium Summit that was held at the United Nations three years ago. At that historic meeting, leaders of all countries agreed to put the world on a more balanced, secure and sustainable path. They agreed on a set of Millennium Development Goals to free men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty, to which more than a billion people are currently subjected. World leaders committed themselves to making the right to development a reality. To do so, they agreed on a set of time-bound goals to combat poverty, hunger, disease, discrimination against women, degradation of land, and illiteracy.

Achieving these worthy goals requires leadership, commitment and partnership. Heads of State, ministers, parliamentarians, civil society, the United Nations, and ombudsmen all have a role to play. We must open doors and work together.

This morning, I had the privilege of receiving the keys to Panama City from Mayor Juan Carlos Navarro. This enabled me to open quite a few doors, and to discuss population, development and human rights.

I had the pleasure to meet today with the President of the Republic of Panama, Mireya Moscoso Rodriguez. I also met with the Minister of Health, Fernando Gracia; and with the Minister of Youth, Women, Children and the Family, Rosabel Vergara.

I also had the pleasure of meeting with Panama’s Ombudsman, Juan Antonio Tejada, and the other ombudsmen who are here for the Ibero-American meeting.

It is fitting that we are gathered here in Panama as the nation celebrates its 100th anniversary. This milestone has been marked by much celebration, and rightly so. The achievement of independence and national sovereignty, strengthened by national control of the Panama Canal, is to be commended.

The centennial has given the people of Panama an opportunity to look inward and to focus on the meaning of nationhood. I would like to focus my remarks tonight on the force that brings a nation true strength, and that is its people.

On my missions around the globe, I have visited nations large and small, in peace and in turmoil, some enjoying health and well-being, and others plagued by poverty and disease.

In the natural world, environmental scientists look at the health of birds to determine the state of the environment. It has been my experience that one can discern the health of a nation by examining respect for human rights, and the education and health of its people, especially the young.

Today, there are more young people on earth than ever before. In this region of Latin America and the Caribbean, one person in five is an adolescent between the ages of 10 and 19.

Globally, half of all people are under the age of 25. Given their enthusiasm and energy, these young people can be a tremendous force for positive change, if we listen to their concerns and work with them to meet their human needs and respect their human rights. The decisions that we adults make today affect the lives of young people, and the decisions they take will shape our collective future.

And yet, we see that young people today are growing up in a rapidly changing world, with many risks to their health and well-being.

One of those risks is HIV/AIDS. Today, half of all new infections occur among people aged 15 to 24. Every 14 seconds, another young person is newly infected.

We have to ask ourselves: are they getting the information they need to protect their right to health and their right to life? Are girls and young women able to protect their rights, including their right to be free from cruel and degrading treatment, sexual violence and abuse?

Today, young people are at the centre of the global AIDS pandemic. But while they are highly vulnerable to infection, they also offer the world’s greatest hope for reversing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Unlike older adults, who are often set in their ways, young people are open to change.

In areas where the spread of HIV/AIDS is subsiding or even declining, it is primarily because young men and women are being given the tools and the incentives to adopt safer behaviours. Young people have demonstrated that they are capable of making responsible choices to protect themselves when provided such support, and that they can educate and motivate others to make safe choices.

Evidence from around the world has clearly shown that providing information and building skills on human sexuality and human relationships help to avert health problems and create more mature, equitable and responsible attitudes.

Such behaviours and attitudes help to prevent teenage pregnancy. For a teenage girl, pregnancy is truly a life-changing event. Plans are disrupted; schooling is often, and unfairly, cut short; and opportunities are stifled. At the same time, responsibilities and risks increase significantly. Sadly, many teenage girls report that they were unwilling, or coerced into sexual relations.

A study in Jamaica, where nearly a quarter of all births are to teenage girls, shows that 12 per cent say they were forced into their first sexual experience. This is even more tragic when one considers that for teenage girls, complications of pregnancy and childbirth are a leading cause of death, with unsafe abortion being a major factor.

Today, many teenage girls and women get pregnant because they do not have the reproductive health information and services they need. This lack of information and services also leaves people highly vulnerable to HIV/AIDS.

What future is in store for the 6,000 young women and men who become newly infected with HIV each day?

Is it morally correct to send young people ignorant into the world, when a little knowledge may save their lives?

Unfortunately, and mistakenly, some people continue to believe that sexuality education increases promiscuous behaviour, when, in fact, just the opposite is true. Studies show that young people use the information to make informed and responsible decisions.

School programmes have the potential to reach large numbers of youth. But many of the most marginalized young people are not in school. To address the needs of these hard-to-reach groups, strategies must correspond to their life situations, and help them deal with the issues they find most pressing. This is especially critical among those who live on the streets, and those who are migrants or displaced.

I am talking about young people because they bring to life the issues that were debated and agreed upon over nine years ago in Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD).

The Cairo Conference was a landmark in the population field, and an outstanding success. Consensus was sought on very sensitive issues, and attained. Differences among cultures were debated. And in a true spirit of leadership, governments learned to respect those differences and find the values we hold in common. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights expresses these values; and the success of Cairo was that all countries agreed finally that reproductive health is a human right.

Reproductive health and rights go beyond the health sector, and have wide and far-ranging effects. Services such as family planning, maternal health care, and the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections bring multiple benefits.

Maternal health care improves, and saves, the lives of countless mothers and babies, reducing maternal and infant mortality. Voluntary family planning enables women and couples to determine the size of their families. Smaller families are able to save more, and invest more in the health and education of each child.

Reductions in fertility also bring about a demographic opportunity. A large working-age population with relatively fewer dependents can register increased savings and faster economic growth. The social and economic benefits of reproductive health interventions are dramatic.

And yet, the right to reproductive health is often violated.

It is violated when a woman is forcibly sterilized. It is violated when a woman or girl is raped. It is violated when a mother dies while trying to give birth for lack of quality health care. It is violated when a person is denied information or services to prevent HIV infection. The right to reproductive health is violated when an individual or couple does not have the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The nations of Latin America and the Caribbean have made much progress in advancing the Programme of Action that was adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development. Great strides have been made to reduce infant and maternal mortality. Progress has been made to ensure that every child attends school. And progress has been made to ensure gender equity and equality, and the empowerment of women.

I would like to commend those of you who have worked so hard on these issues and have been instrumental in drafting and passing legislation and policies that promote human rights. Special credit goes to the women’s movement and to the parliamentarians, ministers and officials at the highest levels who have supported these forward-looking laws and policies.

However, despite all the progress that has been achieved, we must also acknowledge that many challenges remain. As we all know, laws provide a solid legal framework, which is necessary, but in the end, they are just words if they are not brought to life.

Working together, we must ensure that laws and policies are implemented and that institutional capacity is built to do so. We must ensure that people are trained properly and that effective programmes are put in place.

Let me now turn to focus on the most vulnerable segments of the population, whose voices deserve to be heard. I am thinking of those populations that are indigenous, those who are migrants and those who are displaced. They have human rights that must be respected. It is important that governments prevent their exploitation.

In considering the population and development needs of indigenous people, States should recognize and support their identity, culture and interests, and enable them to participate fully in the life of the country, particularly where their health, education and well-being are affected.

Together, we must also take stronger action against gender-based violence. We cannot claim to be making progress towards equality, development and peace when violence against women and girls continues to be widespread. Where effective laws and programmes are in place, offenders are being brought to justice, and survivors are able to obtain services such as shelter, counselling and medical care.

Another issue of increasing concern is the human rights violations committed against people living with HIV/AIDS. Because the disease is associated with promiscuous behaviour, prostitutes, homosexuals and drug users, it is also associated with stigma and discrimination. And yet the truth is that AIDS is a public health concern that affects us all. No one in this room is immune to HIV infection.

The stigma and discrimination associated with AIDS worsen the epidemic by driving it underground, thereby hindering efforts for HIV prevention, treatment and care. People are afraid to seek counselling and testing. Employees are dismissed if they are found to be HIV-positive. And those in need of compassion and care are left alone to suffer in silence and shame.

Addressing the human rights of those affected by HIV/AIDS is a necessary and essential part of the fight against AIDS. We must remember that the fight is against the disease, not the people living with it.

People living with HIV/AIDS need support, and they have much support to offer. Their experience and wisdom are needed for effective interventions, for educating others on how to prevent infection, for advocating for access to drugs and healthcare, and for reminding us of our common humanity. We must view and treat people living with HIV/AIDS as part of the solution, not part of the problem.

And together, we must ensure that HIV prevention services, as part of integrated reproductive health services, spread faster than the HIV virus itself. Without a cure or vaccine, the only way to slow the spread of AIDS is by preventing new infections.

This largest youth generation in history can be a powerful force for positive change—for increased equality between men and women, for the reversal of the AIDS pandemic, for greater prosperity and opportunity, if we invest in them and make their health and well-being a priority.

UNFPA has made a strong case for greater investments in adolescents and young people in our 2003 State of World Population report. And we will continue to do so, as we build up to the 10th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development, and beyond. We encourage all of you to do the same.

It is time to place young people at the centre of efforts aimed at ensuring a more stable, peaceful and prosperous world. It is time to ensure that reproductive health and rights and gender equality are placed squarely in key policy discussions, within countries and internationally.

It is also necessary to work on the legal front, particularly on laws that promote reproductive rights and the rights of women, and that penalize all forms of discrimination, sexual violence and abuse.

All over the world, girls and women want to live free of discrimination, violence and coercion. Will their dreams be fulfilled? Young women today want fewer children than their mothers did. Will they be free to act on their preference? Young men and women want to remain HIV-free. Will they be able to do so? People living with AIDS want their human rights respected. Will they be treated with dignity and equality before the law? Many young men today want to be full partners in the family. Will they be free to make that choice?

Together, we must ensure that these choices are available, and fully supported. In doing so, we will move closer to a world free of fear and free from want, a world where human rights prevail.

Thank you.

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