Speech

Remarks by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem at the Wadadli Action Platform

09 August 2022

Excellencies,

Esteemed partners and friends,

Dear young people,

I thank the Government of Antigua and Barbuda and the cohosts for convening us on the Wadadli Action Platform – a name reflecting the indigenous origins of this beautiful society.

May I begin by quoting directly from the 1945 UN founding Charter:

WE THE PEOPLES OF THE UNITED NATIONS DETERMINED

  • to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, 
  • reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small, and
  • [resolve] to promote social progress and better standards of life in larger freedom...

Every day, the people in Small Island Developing States are using their local knowledge and wisdom to find sustainable solutions to economic and social and climate-related dilemmas. They are rising up to say:

Do not underestimate me because I’m a woman, or young.

Do not underestimate me because I’m from an island nation.

Do not underestimate my capacity because I live with a disability.

They are looking to governments and looking within, willing to wield their power to transform their communities and our world.

In this Decade of Action for the Sustainable Development Goals, UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency, is working hard to deliver a world that upholds rights for all. Because with the right support, there are no limits to human potential.

The evidence is clear, access to sexual and reproductive health is a precondition for women and girls to take control of their bodies and lives, and chart their own destiny.

When an adolescent stays in school, she acquires important skills that raise lifetime earnings, which in turn increases resilience and reduces vulnerability to violence and climate-related shocks.

Just on July 11, World Population Day, UNFPA and DESA announced that this year, the world will reach the 8 billion population mark — not next year as earlier predicted. 

Although women are better than half that total, many are still unable to participate fully in society. 

And young people are fast approaching a quarter of that number. 

Yet today: 

Over 175 million young people in low income countries cannot read a full sentence. Some half a billion live on less than $2 a day and over 73 million are unemployed.

For people with disabilities, it’s bad to worse. Women and girls with disabilities routinely face stigma and discrimination, finding it hard to assert their bodily autonomy. They experience far more gender-based violence, and are likelier to live in poverty and rely on social assistance.

In 122 countries, UNFPA supports countries in delivering life-saving sexual and reproductive health services and information.

Here in Antigua and Barbuda, there has been tremendous progress. Remarkably, in recent years this country cut its teen pregnancy rate by half, with tremendous social and economic benefits. We all want to learn - how did Antigua do it? One part of the answer is policy meeting practice, such as advocacy in implementing their National Action Plan to Reduce Adolescent Pregnancy.

UNFPA’s comprehensive sexuality education programmes equip young people to take responsibility and visualize themselves as future leaders. Very important for the SIDS climate action agenda which young people are eager to lead. 

For example, with Australian funding, the governments of Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga and Vanuatu enlist UNFPA to integrate age-appropriate life skills sexuality education into school systems and community-led programmes.

And our flagship inclusion programme, WE DECIDE, is about positive collective action led by people with disabilities.  

Distinguished participants,

As Small Island Developing States face up to overlapping crises – Covid-19, inequalities, to economic hardship and devastating impacts of climate change —

Your leadership will be central to protecting the most marginalized communities and, quite literally, turning the tide.

Specifically, what would I ask of you?

One: Uphold rights and choices. Strengthen access to sexual and reproductive health and gender-based violence protection services and information. Deliver inclusive services that respect the rights and dignity of all people.

Two: Lift the cloak of invisibility. Assess who’s being left behind and why, who’s vulnerable to discrimination and inequalities – by strengthening disaggregated data, and through laws and programmes that reflect their needs and demands. Look at policies and ask, does this approach help or hinder progress toward gender equality. And factor in the requirements of people with disabilities into disaster preparedness. 

Thirdly,

Create incentives. Structure changes in the labour market that are favourable to women and young people. For instance, require public and private sector entities to have affirmative action procurement policies for female owned businesses and to do their part to close the digital divide. Give women and young people the tools they need to compete in a technology-driven world through skilling, reskilling or upskilling.

We all hold inherent power and I believe we must band together and use it – to build inclusive societies, where women and girls and people of all ages and all types of ability can live in dignity, charting their own life course ‘in larger freedom’ – as the UN Charter guarantees.

Of course people in SIDS countries have every right to live life in larger freedom. For that dream to become reality, you and I cannot stand idly on the sidelines. Instead we must join in, as women, young people and persons with disabilities advocate for inclusion in policymaking and for explicit recognition in economic agendas.

Let us therefore combine our voices, resources, and ingenuity to lift people up, and break down every barrier holding back women and girls, young people and people who are differently abled. 

We need to help each other. Because there are some successes no one can achieve alone.

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