"Poverty and Gender Inequality are Incompatible with Sustainable Development": Panel Discussion at Third Prepcom for Johannesburg Summit

29 January 2002

Let me get right to the point. Ten years after the adoption of Agenda 21, the primary challenge remains: to ensure that access to resources for human development is in balance with human numbers; to end extreme poverty; and to advance equality between men and women.

As a matter of human rights as well as for the future of sustainable development, it is simply unacceptable that one person in six today lives in extreme poverty and that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Today, 20 per cent of the world’s people, mostly in high-income countries, account for 86 per cent of the world’s consumption of resources. Meanwhile, in Africa, where poverty has increased during the last decade, the average household consumes 20 per cent less than it did 25 years ago.

In the world’s developing countries, there are more than one billion people who lack access to safe drinking water and over 2 billion who lack adequate sanitation. In too many parts of the world, health care is a mirage, and education is for the few. And too many of the deprived are women. However long the queue among the poor, women are at the end of it.

Poverty and gender inequality are incompatible with sustainable development. We need to ensure that more economic resources flow into the hands of poor people, especially women. Women for example, make up half of the world’s agricultural work force: They need legal and social support for land ownership, tenure and inheritance. They need guaranteed access to credit, and services for agricultural and resource management.

Everything we have learned over the past decade shows that when women are empowered—through economic opportunity, health care and education—the benefits go far beyond the individual. Families, communities and nations are better off. Population growth slows, economic growth is stronger, and countries have more capacity, as well as more room to make choices which favour sustainability.

At the global conferences of the 1990s, governments, helped by a multitude of civil society organisations, drew up a recipe for sustainable development. They agreed that the empowerment of women is an essential ingredient. At every regional meeting in preparation for next September’s Summit, participants have stressed that sustainable development must benefit the poor.

Despite these agreements, many women in developing countries still lack access to resources, services and the opportunity to make real choices. They are trapped in poverty by illiteracy, poor health and unwanted high fertility. All of these contribute to environmental degradation and tighten the grip of poverty. If we are serious about sustainable development, we must break this vicious cycle.

As a matter of human rights and as a basis for their other choices, women need ready access to the full range of reproductive health information and services, including voluntary family planning.

Access to reproductive health information and services in the next decade will determine whether the HIV/AIDS pandemic can be stopped. In the absence of a cure or a vaccine, only responsible sexual behaviour among both women and men can prevent the spread of infection. The damage already done by AIDS threatens development in some of the poorest countries. All countries must act with a united resolve if the damage is to be contained and the tide of infection turned back

There are an estimated 120 million couples who would use family planning services now, if they had access to them. Demand for these services is expected to increase by 40 per cent in the next 15 years.

We have made good progress in some areas. Today, some 60 per cent of married women in developing countries are using modern methods of family planning, compared to about 10 per cent just 40 years ago. There is a broad international consensus on the links between ending poverty, promoting reproductive health, securing gender equality and protecting the environment. This is a tremendous achievement in a relatively short period of time. We must continue to consolidate our gains.

The last two generations of women have increasingly chosen to have smaller families. The next generation will follow their example—if they have access to education; if they can count on care in childbirth and beyond; if they can avoid unwanted pregnancy, if they have economic opportunities, and if they have the support of their families and communities in making their own choices.

Today population growth is a matter for the poorest countries, but it affects the world, and demands a global response. In the next 50 years, the combined population of the least developed countries is expected to triple, from 658 million to 1.8 billion. The implications of this rapid growth for development and the environment will be far-reaching. The poorest countries make direct demands on natural resources for survival. If they have no other choices, the damage to the environment will be profound, and permanent.

The combination of poverty, population pressures and environmental degradation in the rural areas drives migration to cities and across national borders. The megacities of the world should be powerhouses of development. Instead, their essential services are at risk of collapsing under the weight of unsustainable population growth.

In their people, developing countries possess the most powerful resource for development. Recent steep declines in fertility have produced a “demographic bonus” in the form of the largest-ever generation of young people. Without an equally large generation behind them to make demands on scarce resources, these young people are potentially a great driving force for development, if they have the opportunity.

The main contribution of the United Nations Population Fund to the World Summit is our experience in helping countries to incorporate population in development policies, to improve reproductive health and promote gender equality. We have been powerful advocates for the consensus on population and development adopted at the International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 and repeatedly endorsed in international fora since then.

As Task Manager for Chapter 5 of Agenda 21, we have prepared an analysis of demographic dynamics and sustainability, and submitted a Background Paper No.14, entitled Population, Environment and Poverty Eradication for Sustainable Development – Actions Toward Johannesburg 2002. Together with key partners, including the Government of Austria, IIASA, and the MacArthur Foundation, we have initiated a Global Science Panel, to strengthen an integrated and scientific base for global recommendations and actions. We are fortunate to have two well-known leaders in both areas of the Environment and Population, Maurice Strong and Nafis Sadik, as patrons of this effort. Our annual State of World Population 2001 Report, which we dedicated to population, development and environmental change in preparation for the Summit, offers policy makers and activists an overview of demographic challenges, environmental trends, and recommendations for action.

We are working in more than 140 developing countries worldwide to help countries meet their population and development goals. By helping countries formulate effective population and development policies that address real concerns—such as rapid urbanization, HIV/AIDS, poverty, ageing, environmental protection, migration, gender issues, and reproductive health—the United Nations Population Fund is committed to the collective global responsibility to ensure sustainable development and safeguard the environment during the 21st century.

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