Progress and Challenges: Women’s Health and Education for Girls

23 October 2010
Author: UNFPA

Thank you very much for the kind introduction and thank you for inviting me here. Parliamentarians are UNFPA’s long term partners, a relationship which began about thirty years ago in Asia, and I am happy to see all of you here.

I am particularly pleased that you have chosen ‘Empowering Women – Building Human Security’ as the theme of this year’s forum. Women are the weavers of the fabric of society and they ensure resilience of their communities. And I believe that the key human rights struggle of the 21st century is the struggle for equality and the rights of women. By empowering women, we build human security.

Today I will focus my remarks on the rights to education and health, including the right to sexual and reproductive health. When women are educated and healthy, and their rights are protected by law, they can reach their full potential and fully contribute to the development and security of their families, communities and nations.

During the past 10 years as UNFPA Executive Director, I have had the privilege of seeing first-hand some of the progress that is being made in women’s health and education. And I have seen how the burden of disease resulting from poor reproductive health can increase the vulnerability of poor women – this segment of the population for whom you work so hard to ensure they have access to the right programmes, at the right time and in the right place.

I have visited health clinics and seen pregnant women waiting to get their check-ups and new mothers learn how to care for their babies. I have seen couples learning about family planning, and adolescent girls and boys learning about the importance of healthy relationships and thus equality.

Today, from the earthquake in Haiti to the floods in Pakistan, reproductive health supplies are increasingly distributed alongside food, water and tents by humanitarian aid workers. It is now recognized that women’s reproductive health cannot be segmented into development or humanitarian contexts. Women get pregnant, miscarry or deliver babies under all circumstances, during war or peace, floods or earthquakes.

In Honduras, I saw hundreds of police cadets being trained to recognize and respond to violence against women. Across Latin America, police and armed forces have been trained on HIV prevention within the context of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Here in Turkey and in other countries around the globe, there is heightened awareness and action to stop violence against women.

In many countries in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, with historically high abortion rates, women now have greater access to reproductive health care. The use of family planning has increased to support their choices in terms the number and spacing of their pregnancies. The result of making family planning accessible and available is that abortion rates have declined dramatically.

We have also made progress in addressing HIV and AIDS. More and more people living with AIDS now have access to life-saving treatment. And we are witnessing an HIV prevention revolution with young people leading the way. Since 2001, HIV infections are down by 17 percent and young people are practicing safer behavior.

Comprehensive sexuality education is expanding, which is a key issue for young people. We already know that young people, powered by knowledge, are making responsible decisions to abstain or delay the age of sexual relations. Equipped with better knowledge, information and skills, young people can be empowered to make informed and responsible decisions and enjoy better health, greater prospects for education and employment, and brighter futures for themselves and their nations.

We also see progress with maternal health and fewer women dying of complications of pregnancy and childbirth. A month ago, UNFPA together with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank released new estimates showing that maternal deaths worldwide have dropped by 34 percent since 1990.

As I keep saying, No woman should die giving life, and all of us in this room can take pride in this one-third drop in maternal mortality.

This reduction is the result of advocacy, leadership, investment and strategic efforts to:

  • train midwives and birth attendants,
  • equip hospitals and health clinics,
  • bring services closer to where women live,
  • ensure safe abortion where it is legal, and
  • expand access to family planning for those who want it.

We also see progress towards universal education with enrolment in primary education in developing countries now reaching 89 per cent. The developing regions, as a whole, are approaching gender parity in educational enrolment.

There are many more examples I could choose from to demonstrate clearly that we have made progress since the International Conference on Population and Development 16 years ago in Cairo.

It was there that representatives from 179 countries came to a consensus for the first time that women’s health and empowerment are critical to a nation’s sustainability and economic growth.

The world agreed for the first time that everyone has the right to sexual and reproductive health and that respect for women’s rights must be part of our efforts to improve the quality of life for all people and for the well-being of our planet.

Leaders agreed that by the year 2015 that all governments will provide services to ensure access to reproductive health, including family planning, as a basic right; that all governments will dramatically reduce infant, child and maternal mortality; and that all governments will open the doors of education to all, especially girls and women.

The good news is that we are making solid progress.

However, we cannot be complacent as too many women and girls are still denied health care and education. And you are unlikely to see these tragedies at the top of news headlines where they should be.


  • 1,000 women still die every day from pregnancy related causes,
  • 215 million women have an unmet need for family planning,
  • more than 2 million women still suffer from the devastating childbirth injury of fistula,
  • 2.7 million people become newly infected with HIV every year, and
  • 60 million girls are denied access to primary education.

Clearly, this is no time to cut back on our commitments to women’s health and education. On the contrary, it is time address the gaps, and, as I see it, there are three things we need to do to improve women’s health and education.

First, we need to tackle widening inequities, both among and within countries. Even as the wealthy have seen gains in access to health and education, those excluded by poverty, gender, ethnicity, disability, or situations of conflict, have often been left behind, and this is holding back a country’s progress.

Surveys show that women from the wealthiest households in sub-Saharan Africa are more than three times as likely as those from the poorest households to give birth with assistance from a skilled provider. In southern Asia, the rich are five times more likely to have an assisted delivery.

When it comes to education, girls from the poorest 60 per cent of households are three times more likely to be out of school than those from the wealthiest households. And their chances of attending secondary school are even slimmer.

To build human security, we need to address these gaps to break the cycle of poverty that runs from one generation to the next.

Education and health go hand in hand. Educated women are more likely to have smaller and healthier families and the benefits extend for generations to come.

Second, we need to make sure that health and education policies are underpinned with the principles of human rights, equality and inclusion and engage communities in the process.

As all of us know, reproductive health and rights are fraught with politics, sensitivities and taboos. To make greater progress, there is a need to bridge universal principles with national and local priorities and values and laws. But this does not mean accepting values that hurt women and deny them their rights to education and health. Rather, we should invoke the positive values and beliefs, supported by laws, in all societies, that can motivate development and protect the rights of women.

UNFPA has played a critical role in highlighting the power of culture to change from within social norms and gender dynamics for equality between men and women. This approach has been successful for example in supporting communities to make pubic declarations to abandon female genital mutilation/cutting.

Today communities in Egypt, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea and Senegal are abandoning the harmful practice of female genital mutilation and cutting. Social norms and laws are changing towards protecting the rights of women and girls. And community leadership is essential in the social transformation that would protect the rights and dignity of women.

In Asia, families and communities are mobilizing against the practice of sex selection, so that girls will be born and survive.

Countries need strong laws and justice systems to protect the right to education and health, including sexual and reproductive health. And communities need open dialogue to negotiate within their own cultural contexts, build on positive traditions, change harmful discriminatory beliefs and practices, and internalize human rights.

And third, and finally, to make greater progress, we need stronger political leadership and funding.

While resources for global health rose considerably during the last decade, funding for sexual and reproductive health remained virtually stagnant and actually declined for family planning.

We need to keep pushing to make the right to sexual and reproductive health a priority. We need to keep pushing to achieve universal education and reproductive health by 2015.

We need to move from speech lines to budget lines.

We have to build on the recent pledge by the G8 in Canada to commit an additional $5 billion over the next five years for maternal, newborn and child health and to integrate sexual and reproductive health and rights with HIV prevention.

We also need to build on the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health that was launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the recent MDG Summit. Various stakeholders pledged over $40 billion in commitments for women’s and children’ health and I am pleased to report that the right to sexual and reproductive health is integral to this global effort.

But money alone is not enough. Bold leadership at all levels, from global to local, is needed to secure the hard-won gains and make further progress. Nationally, as parliamentarians, you are in a key position to keep women’s rights high on the agenda.

Honorable Parliamentarians, Excellencies,

As elected representatives, you are uniquely placed to offer leadership in all the matters I have mentioned.

You can represent the thoughts, feelings and needs of your constituents to government; and explain to your electorate the need for concerted action.

You can reach out to your colleagues in other countries, build partnerships and strengthen their efforts to address the challenges of population and development.

So let us today reaffirm and strengthen our commitment to the implementation of ICPD Programme of Action and re-commit to ensuring its full implementation by 2014.

Let us work together to stay on track, to expand effective partnerships and to lead with vision and vigour.

The current youth generation presents an unprecedented opportunity for growth and transformation, if there is a concerted, massive investment in education, employment, and health care.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to this generation to live up to our commitments.

At last years’ 4th International Parliamentarians Conference on the Implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, many of you heard the young people saying “We Count on You.” And you answered by adopting a strong statement of commitment, pledging to empowering young people, including by taking action to address their reproductive health needs.

It’s now time that we go beyond words - to action. We must do all that we can to create hope in the future.
Yes we can do it together- and you only, as Parliamentarians, can transform the voices of the people, including the young, into action by governments.

The empowerment of women is about real things in daily life—about preserving the life of a woman in childbirth, about releasing the shame of a socially stigmatized health crisis such as fistula, and advancing the chance to enjoy a new life. It is the end of child marriage, the end of vertical transmission of HIV from parent to child, and the eradication of violence against women. And it is protecting equal rights and opportunity by law.

It is about keeping girls in school not only through primary but also secondary and university levels. It is about choice and control over one’s own body and being able to decide, freely and responsibly, if and when to have a child.

As we move forward, my colleagues and I at UNFPA will continue to listen to you, to work with you and to stand by you.

I am so happy to see all of you here today because the best way to make progress is to look at what is working in countries and build on that success.

I would like to end by expressing my appreciation and admiration for your efforts as members of parliament, both in your own country and globally, in advancing human rights and dignity for all. Thank you and I look forward to our discussions.

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