Lawmakers from 110 countries, representing all continents, pledged here last week to intensify efforts, individually and collectively, aiming to attain the goals on safeguarding people’s rights to sexual health and freedom to determine their reproductive choices. The goals were set at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), held in 1994 in Cairo.
The 2012 International Parliamentarians Conference on Implementation of ICPD (ICPI) was the fifth of the kind since its creation in 2002, and gathered 220 members of national parliaments and as many experts and academics. Organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF), ICPI was hosted by the Turkish Grand Assembly and government.
At the end of the conference, the MPs issued a 3,000-word declaration, under the title ‘Keeping Promises- Measuring Results’, to confirm their commitment to achieving ICPD’s objectives, which include: HIV and AIDS prevention; decreasing by 75 percent mothers’ mortality at giving birth; having states allocate 10 percent of their respective national development budgets and third-country assistance funds to population and reproductive health programmes; and ensuring that countries dedicate 0.7 percent of their Gross National Product (GNP) to securing sexual and reproductive rights of their citizens.
GNP is measured in total monetary value of all products and services produced by a country in a year. For instance, the GNP of the United States was 15 trillion dollars in 2011.
Additional objectives aim at promoting and protecting gender equality and the empowerment of the youth, particularly young girls.
Such aims include "measures to prevent all types of exploitation and abuse against young people, including trafficking of young persons and economic, sexual, physical and mental abuse, child and forced marriages, and harmful traditional practices, and the elimination of discrimination against young pregnant girls", according to the declaration.
"ICPD is about human beings, respect, rights, and what we can do to ensure that every individual can make his or her own decisions," Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA told the delegates. "Only when these aspirations are reached the world will be a better place."
Making their own decisions means, for women and couples, having easy access to reliable information and quality education, contraceptives, expert healthcare, and freedom to choose when and how many children to have. For adolescents, it implies responsible sexual education and respect for the other. For young girls, the main challenges lie over early marriage, and the right to decide whether to remain pregnant following forced motherhood or rape.
Being MPs, ICPI members can only act through persuading their respective parliaments to pass legislation that helps such goals be furthered. But the issues addressed touch sensitive political chords. In spite of a spirit of cooperation and harmony in open sessions, negotiations behind closed doors were not all that smooth, according to IPS sources.
The debate on the final text of the declaration was reportedly a heated one, lasting until 1 am on Friday. North and South did not see eye-to-eye on several points of the proposals put forward by subcommittees and working groups.
Although reducing maternal death at giving birth, improving sexual health, particularly HIV and AIDS prevention, and fighting abuse received wide support, other subjects remain taboo, meeting resistance, both from emerging and from a handful of Western countries.
Birth control, the freedom for a woman to decide how many children she should have and, more particularly, voluntary interruption of pregnancy through abortion, even when such action would be the only medically sound option, are still non-negotiable for many societies.
Even in North America, 31 percent of Independent and Republican voters do not support international family planning, U.S. House Representative (D) Carolyn Maloney told IPS in an interview.
Religious beliefs come often as a justification for such resistance. "This is not a valid cause," says Dr. Sahar F. Qawasmi, member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a practising gynaecologist.
"Culture and tradition are the most important factors. In the Middle East, patriarchal structures of society deprive women of any individual form of decision-making about their bodies, sexuality and maternal health," she adds.
Legislation against incest, domestic violence, rape, sexual abuse by relatives, and honor killings is now urgently needed in many of the countries in the region in order to improve female condition and health prospects, according to Qawasmi.
Male-favourable discrimination in law has additional perverse effects, says the PLC member. For instance, legal complexity and opaque administrative procedures force women to forego their inheritance rights. Economic and personal disempowerment lead the female population of all ages to dependence upon the will of men, depriving the society of talented resources.
For Qawasmi, encouraging women to get higher education, entering the work market, starting business of their own, and engaging in politics are the starting point for securing reproductive rights and health in her country. The Palestinian Authority has recently increased the quota of female MPs from 20 to 30 percent, in spite of opposition by traditionalist politicians.
"These measures can’t, however, bear fruits to the extent hoped, as long the Palestinian Territories remain occupied (by Israel). Occupation and violence will always be the cause for lack of sustainable development, both economic and moral," she concludes.
The targets aimed at by ICPD are aligned with the 2015 Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). IPCI’s mandate ends in 2014. Good progress has been made in HIV and AIDS prevention. But maternal mortality at giving birth remains a serious concern, as the objective of reducing such deaths by 75 percent in 20 years has been partially achieved only: 50 percent in 18 years.
An earlier article, providing background on ICPI, can be found here.