Statement at the Minnesota International Center

09 May 2003

Good afternoon.

It is an honour to be here today at the Minnesota International Center. I would like to thank Carol Byrne of the Center, David Sutton of the United Nations Association of Minneapolis, and Sid Voorakka of the Better World Fund for making today’s luncheon possible. I would also like to thank Peter Purdy and Cheryl Stanley of the United States Committee for the United Nations Population Fund. And, I would like to thank all of you for coming.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am most pleased to speak to all of you today about the importance of women in the developing world. With Mother’s Day just two days away, we are reminded of the importance that mothers and women hold in our lives. So, let us consider today the mothers and women who are far from the Twin Cities—the mothers and women in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.

Let us travel to Afghanistan, where a woman will give birth. If she survives, she will hold and feed her baby, comfort her and care for her—just as any mother would anywhere in the world. In these most basic acts of human nature, humanity knows no divisions. However, to give birth today in Afghanistan is to give birth in conditions that are far away from the prosperity that one small part of humanity has achieved. It is to give birth under conditions that many of us in this room would consider inhuman. A mother in Afghanistan faces a 1 in 15 chance of dying in childbirth, compared to a 1 in 3,500 chance here in the United States. Truly, it is as if it were a tale of two planets. I speak of a mother in Afghanistan, but I might equally well have mentioned a mother in Sierra Leone, or a mother in war-torn Iraq.

Throughout history and across cultures, women have been honoured as the givers of life, nurturers of families, sustainers of communities and quiet builders of nations. But, all too often, they have also been dishonoured, regarded as mere property, cheated by gross inequity, burdened by overwork and battered by violence.

Ironically, in societies where women are seen primarily as wives and mothers, girls have fewer opportunities to continue their education and to perform other social roles. Around the world, millions of women continue to be voiceless and vulnerable, due to legal inequality, harmful traditions, and deeply rooted discrimination. Many women still believe they are inferior to men and, sadly, practices reflect this.

In India, for instance, millions of girls are missing from society due to a preference for boys. In El Salvador, a higher price is paid to a midwife for the delivery of a boy than for that of a girl. In Mexico, the theft of a cow is considered a more serious crime than the rape of a woman. And who among us will ever forget the human rights that were denied the women and girls of Afghanistan?

But while discrimination and violence against women and girls remain widespread, we must also acknowledge that progress is being made. We are making progress when crimes committed against women are regularly reported in the media, and brought to trial for justice, rather than shrouded in secrecy, silence and shame.

We are making progress when more than 14 million women have access to microcredit, and can build a better life for themselves and their children.

We are also making progress when laws are being changed and adopted for the first time, granting women equality.

One of the greatest achievements of the past half-century has been the increasing ability of women to exercise their basic human rights. One of these rights is the right to choose the number, timing and spacing of one’s children. Today, 65 per cent of couples in the developing world use family planning, compared to 10 per cent just 50 years ago. This is a tremendous achievement, a revolution really, that has literally changed the face of the earth. Because women are making their own choices about childbearing, the average number of children in families in the developing world has dropped by half in the past 40 years. And population growth is now slowing. Today, there are 77 million people added to our planet every year, compared to 86 million a decade ago.

And this constitutes a great achievement for women, for human rights, for the environment and for global health.

Family planning saves the lives of millions of mothers, babies and children. If a woman can plan and space her births, she has a better chance of surviving pregnancy and having a healthy baby. Having children too close together, or too early or late in life, poses serious health risks.

Since becoming Executive Director of UNFPA, I have travelled around the world and I have seen firsthand the tremendous needs of women. And I know that in many cases, access to information, education and health services is, quite frankly, a matter of life and death.

This is especially true, given the spread of HIV/AIDS. Half of all new infections occur in young people, and young women are especially vulnerable. Today women, for the first time, constitute half of all people infected. It is a sad reality that the first place where women have been able to achieve equality is among those infected with HIV/AIDS.

In sub-Saharan Africa, where AIDS has hit the hardest, women comprise 58 per cent of those infected, and teenage girls face a rate of infection that is five to six times higher than the rate for boys their age in some countries.

Women bear the main burden of care and women are the last in line for treatment. Women are often blamed for spreading the disease and suffer tremendously from the stigma associated with AIDS. Women and girls are denied information and education. A recent survey by UNICEF found that up to 50 per cent of young women in high-prevalence countries did not know even the basic facts about HIV/AIDS. And in many cases, what they do know is nothing more than myth.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The world must do much more to prevent HIV infection, and care for those who are affected. AIDS is a global emergency that demands an urgent global response. Today, there are about 42 million people living with HIV/AIDS and 25 million people have already died from the disease. There are 14 million AIDS orphans.

AIDS is more than a threat to public health; it is a threat to humanity. And we must respond with global solidarity.

The African countries that are the hardest-hit are watching gains in health and education being swept away. The epidemic is carving out societies, stealing away the most productive members -- parents, teachers, workers and farmers -- leaving old people and children to fend for themselves with little support. Health systems are unable to cope and families, communities and entire nations are coming unravelled. But the story does not have to be one of death and destruction.

UNFPA is one of the co-sponsors of the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AID (UNAIDS). And we know what works because we have seen progress in countries such as Thailand, Uganda, Senegal and Cambodia. We know that we have to build up health systems and expand access to life-saving drugs. We know that we have to break the silence, stigma and discrimination that help this disease to spread. That is why this year's Global AIDS Campaign has the slogan, "Live and Let Live."

And, perhaps, most importantly, if we want to stop this epidemic, we know we have to spread effective prevention strategies faster than the spread of the HIV virus itself. For UNFPA, the prevention of HIV/AIDS is a top priority.

Over the past two years, I have often recalled that the real struggle is for everyone to enjoy freedom from fear and freedom from want. It is the quest for human dignity. And I have found that women and girls in many countries need increased support to live lives of dignity, where their human rights are respected and their human needs are met.

Today, just 52 per cent—barely half—of all women in Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Latin America and Caribbean, give birth with a midwife, nurse or doctor present. Worldwide, 350 million women are still denied access to a full range of safe and effective family planning services. And the consequences are tragic. Today, one woman dies every minute from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. In today’s world of unprecedented wealth and scientific achievement, this is unacceptable. As we celebrate Mother’s Day, let us remember the mothers around the world and let us support their rights, including their right to life.

In closing, I would like to stress that we, as individuals can make a difference. Our actions do count. As an example, I would like to point to a grass-roots campaign started by two American women.

Last year, when the United States Administration withdrew $34 million in Congress-appropriated funds for UNFPA, Jane Roberts of California and Lois Abraham of New Mexico sprang into action. They independently started a campaign among American citizens to replace the United States funding for UNFPA.

I am happy to announce that just one week ago, the campaign reached the $1 million milestone. You will be proud to know that the people of Minnesota have played a key role. Minnesota ranks second among all 50 states in the number of contributors. Nearly 10 per cent of all contributions come from this great State.

I would like to urge all of you who have not already done so to become one of our 34 million friends. By doing so, you will play an important role in saving lives and building hope. You will play a role in closing some of the huge gaps that divide us. You will show that we are one human family, living on one small and interdependent globe, and by working together, we can build a better world for all.

I would also like to encourage all of you to visit the ‘Family of Woman’ exhibit that we opened last night at the IDS Crystal Court. It is a photographic exhibition, sponsored by the US Committee for UNFPA.

Although the challenges we face may seem daunting, we have made much progress together and, together, we will make even more. The United Nations is founded on the principle of the dignity and equal worth of every human being. And if we increase our collective efforts to meet the needs and human rights of every woman, man and child, we will create a century like none before.

Thank you.

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