Women’s rights: Engaging the other half of the population

The empowerment of women must be the foundation for development across the world.

Women and girls still face discrimination, violence and denial of their reproductive rights, writes Osotimehin [AFP]

Leaders at this year’s UN General Assembly will focus on challenges such as terrorism, climate change and the spread of Ebola. They will also reflect on progress made since the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, a groundbreaking moment for women and their right to control their lives and fertility.

But the 20-year review takes place against a backdrop of ongoing violence against women, and attempts to take back control of their bodies. What we are seeing in the news every day is the very visible perpetration of that violence. And the ongoing moves to take away women’s choices and access to contraception and family planning are a grave threat to women’s rights, health and freedom, and the well-being of communities and nations around the world.

Certainly, a global review of the Cairo Programme of Action does show significant progress. More people have escaped poverty, more women are surviving childbirth, more girls are going to school, and more women have access to modern contraception.

But still, in every country, women and girls continue to face discrimination, violence and denial of their reproductive rights. And this is not only hurting them, it is blocking social and economic progress.

We have to ask ourselves how far we have come when one in three women worldwide will be subjected to physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. And we know that this violence only increases in times of conflict.

We have to ask ourselves how far we have come when one in three women worldwide will be subjected to physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. And we know that this violence only increases in times of conflict.

Who among us is not horrified by the stories of women in Iraq and Syria fleeing the brutality of ISIL insurgents, of displaced women in camps in South Sudan who are afraid to go to the toilet for fear of being raped, of the schoolgirls in Nigeria who remain missing after being abducted months ago by Boko Haram. I could go on. Violence against women occurs to varying degrees in all countries. The list of the crimes and violations committed against women and girls is endless and senseless, and so is the impunity enjoyed by the perpetrators.

I was in Cairo 20 years ago and remember thinking that the agreement reached by 179 leaders was ahead of its time. That was before the internet age, and nearly 4,000 journalists were there to tell the story and cover the debate, which was often contentious. For the first time, the global spotlight was shone on issues that had previously been considered taboo and too private to be discussed in public.

Newspaper headlines and radio and TV reports focused on women’s role in society, relations between women and men, family planning, population growth, young people and sex education.

Women activists demanded that the focus of population and development must be on women and their rights – to live free of violence, coercion and discrimination, to control their own bodies and fertility, and to play their full and equal role in society.

I can tell you with certainty that the Cairo agenda remains relevant, constitutes unfinished business and demands stronger commitment.

Moving forward, we must build on the lessons learned from the 20-year-review. I believe that the most important finding is that we must tackle the rising inequality that is leaving millions of women and girls behind.

Today, one in three girls in developing countries will be married before the age of 18, victims of early, forced and child marriage. More than 220 million women, who want to use family planning, do not have access to modern contraception. And 800 women per day, many of them adolescent girls, will die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth even though most of these deaths could be prevented with quality healthcare.

I have spent decades fighting for women’s and girls’ rights to sexual and reproductive health, and I will continue to do so. I thank all people worldwide who champion this cause and I urge all leaders coming to the UN to recommit and take stronger action.

We know that reproductive rights are a prerequisite for women’s empowerment and gender equality. We also know that any challenge – whether terrorism, climate change or Ebola – cannot be solved by only half the population; it requires all of us.

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin is a UN Undersecretary-General and Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.