Putting People First: Commemorating ICPD at Fifteen

12 October 2009
Author: UNFPA

Mr. President,
Mr. Secretary-General,
Distinguished Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the President of the General Assembly, Dr. Ali Abdussalam Treki, for his opening remarks and for giving me the opportunity to address you at this special commemoration. I would also like to thank the Secretary-General for his unwavering support to the ICPD Programme of Action.

Fifteen years ago, at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), 179 governments ignited a spark of change that continues to improve the lives of people.

The Programme of Action puts people at the centre of development. It calls for the collection and analysis of population data to guide equitable policy decisions. It positions reproductive health, including family planning, and the healthy relationships and well-being of individuals, as a right. It makes clear that when women are empowered and supported to determine the number and spacing of their children—a decision that is seemingly simple yet so complex – they improve their own lives and the well-being of their families, communities and countries.

The right to sexual and reproductive health and women’s empowerment are core to the linkages of population and development. Reproductive choices are central to gender equality and can influence population dynamics. The Cairo agenda addresses the needs and rights of all people, irrespective of their situations, including migrants, refugees and displaced persons, and it makes the connections between population, the environment and peace, security and development.

The holistic Cairo consensus remains practical and pertinent as we confront today’s daunting challenges.

Today, I pay tribute to governments and civil society for their accomplishments since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development and I call on a more responsive private sector. I pay tribute to Dr. Nafis Sadik, former head of UNFPA, who was the Secretary General of the Cairo Conference. She has devoted her professional life to promoting the rights of women to make decisions about their own lives. And I salute the dedicated staff of UNFPA for their commitment to work with governments, civil society, and communities to implement the Programme of Action, many times under challenging circumstances.

During the past 15 years, we have learned a great deal in carrying the Cairo consensus forward. And I would like to share with you five lessons we have learned that point the way ahead.

First, we know that the aspirations in the Cairo consensus are taking root at the local level. Although the debate on sexual and reproductive health is not always easy, dialogue is expanding and concrete progress is being made. Today, there is growing recognition that cultural values and interpretations of sacred texts can either punish or harm women or liberate and support them. Countries and communities are engaged in conversations and programmes that address culturally loaded issues such as child marriage, girls’ education, HIV prevention, female genital mutilation/cutting and violence against women. All over the world, communities are progressively invoking the values and beliefs that protect the rights of women and young people and bringing about change from within. We witness a growing number of men of all walks of life standing side by side with women to end traditional practices that harm women as well as to end violence against women. And here I would like to thank the Secretary-General’s leadership for his campaign “UNiTE to end violence against women”.

Second, we know that investment is critical. While we keep repeating that no woman should die giving life, women continue to die needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth from preventable causes, one woman during every minute of my statement. The good news is that momentum for maternal health is building, there is growing commitment at the highest levels and now we need to match this commitment with increased funding for a comprehensive package of maternal and reproductive health services to achieve MDG5.

In war or peace, in natural or man-made disasters, in a prosperous economy or during a financial crisis, women continue to get pregnant and what happens after that depends on whether they are rich or poor: they give birth, or they sometimes seek abortion, safely and legally or unsafely outside national laws; they sometimes miscarry and, too often, they die while giving birth from preventable causes. We cannot change or postpone these facts of life until the war ends, or until communities have recovered from the disaster or until the economy is strong again.

During this decade, funding for population and reproductive health has remained at the same level while funding for other areas of health has increased substantially. Today, I call on all governments to make the health and reproductive rights of women a financial priority. By ensuring universal access to reproductive health, including family planning, to all, rich or poor, women can manage the number and spacing of their pregnancies. This will accelerate progress to achieve all of the Millennium Development Goals, particularly MDG 1 to end extreme poverty.

Third, we know that today’s demographic challenges are unprecedented and demand coherent policy responses. Population data, if properly analyzed and utilized, provide a solid foundation for developing responsive policies and programmes, and for monitoring and ensuring accountability. The 2010 round of censuses provides much needed data, and surveys and rapid assessments guide us to target responses to the most vulnerable.

While we welcome the world’s largest youth population, we experience at the same time an increase in the number of older persons worldwide. Governments are responsible to provide support simultaneously to both old and young in a challenging development context. I call upon you to take this opportunity to foster intergenerational solidarity.

While we witness rapid population growth in the world’s poorest nations, some of the world’s richest countries face population decline. To address both scenarios, women and couples need expanded choices when it comes to childbearing and childrearing.

In the poorest countries with high rates of fertility and mortality, intensified efforts are needed to provide reproductive health services, including family planning, to meet the unmet need of the 200 million women who want to plan their families but do not have the means to do so. In countries with low fertility, specific policies and programmes are needed so women and couples can balance work and family life and there is social protection for the ageing. There is preliminary evidence in several Nordic countries that after a certain point of development, especially development that benefits women and supports them with family friendly policies and services, fertility rises again. This shows once again the direct link between economic and social development, poverty reduction, women’s empowerment, gender equality and population dynamics.

Fourth, we know that working in silos does not produce maximum benefits because people’s lives, needs and rights are intertwined. To generate greater progress, development partners are increasingly working together across sectors to build national capacity, engage communities and strengthen national systems. The United Nations is harmonizing its support to countries to increase national ownership and scale up national programmes. United Nations reform for development effectiveness is critical to achieve better results on the ground.

And my fifth and last point is that we know that hard-won development gains can easily be reversed and very difficult to regain and we must take urgent and concerted action to protect the most vulnerable. Today, women and their children constitute almost 80 per cent of the world’s poor. As world leaders take decisions about the financial, energy, food, and climate change crises, they must focus on their impact on the poor and especially women and children. If not, women and children will bear the brunt of these multiple crises and society as a whole will be diminished. This is an important message to carry forward to the Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.

Our challenge is to summon the courage and wisdom to respond to these crises and to foster development that is both socially equitable and environmentally sound. For this, the ICPD Programme of Action remains a valid blueprint.

As we look forward to 2015, we need to accelerate implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action. As we commemorate the 15th anniversary and look forward to the next five years, development partners at the global, regional and country levels are reaffirming their commitment.

In September, almost 400 representatives of non-governmental organizations (NGOs0 , a third of them young people, came from 130 countries to the NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development. In the Berlin Call to Action, they called on governments to accelerate the implementation of the promises made in Cairo, including the provision of youth friendly services and comprehensive sexuality and life skills education. This would allow young people to to make informed decisions and take responsible action because ignorance is death. They urged governments to strengthen their commitment to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all. As NGOs, they pledged to work in partnership with governments, United Nations agencies and other development partners to ensure the full and timely implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action.

Now we are looking forward this month to many events: a conference on sexual and reproductive health for Asia and the Pacific in Beijing, followed by the Board meeting of Partners for Population and Development, and a ministerial meeting on maternal health and an international parliamentary conference, both in Addis Ababa, to galvanize greater commitment and action.


As we move forward, my colleagues and I at UNFPA will continue to listen to you. We will continue to work with your national institutions and with civil society. And we will continue to support you to implement your national progammes, as envisioned in the ICPD Programme of Action.

In this, we are guided by passion for the agenda, compassion for the people we serve and commitment to national ownership by governments and communities.

I thank you all for putting people first.

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