Friday, January 15, 2010

Reproductive Rights Centered on the Global Stage: 15the Anniversary of Cairo Conference

Optimism is truly an understatement of the energy I feel after hearing the resounding and remarkable words of our Secretary of State, Hillary Rodham Clinton in her address commemorating the 15th Anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development. Also known as the Cairo Conference of 1994. It is exceptionally refreshing to not only see an undoubtedly pro-choice feminist represent the global interests of this nation, but to also spotlight reproductive health and rights as a fundamental element for the advancement of our world is significantly profound. Her charge to the global community, including the US, to recommit itself to the goals embraced 15 years ago, I think, will be the breakthrough feminist activists have been longing for.

For a moment, let's revisit 1994. A time where 10% of women worldwide used modern forms of contraception, gross inadequacies and inaccessible women's healthcare and health education, AIDS hitting center stage, high illiteracy rates among women and girls, high maternal and infant mortalities, low numbers of female political representation, and increased vulnerabilities resulting from national instability such as the genocide in Rwanda. Though we've come a long way, many of these issues still exist today.

In her remarks, Secretary Clinton highlighted very startling facts that set a tone for urgency to meet the goals of Cairo by 2015. She stated, "Nearly half the women in the developing world deliver their babies without a nurse, a midwife, a doctor, or access to crucial medical care. Global rates of maternal mortality remain perilously high..." She goes on with this alarming statistic, " woman dies every minute of every day in pregnancy or childbirth, and for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer from injury, infection or disease every minute."

These disheartening rates are sad, but real. Unfortunately, we've entered into a new decade where the discussion of reproductive health--a direct correlation to a woman's ability to meet and fulfill her greatest potential--is still a debatable topic. How can we debate or compromise on the more than 215 million women globally lack access to contraceptives which contributes to nearly 20 million unsafe abortions each year? How can we argue about the estimated 70 million girls around the world subjected to female genital mutilation? How can we explain the millions suffering from stigma, injury, and in very many cases, fatality due to fistula; often brought about due to pregnancies occurring in girls at a young age? We cannot. Secretary Clinton put it best, "these numbers are not only grim, but after 15 years, they are intolerable. For if we believe that human rights are women's rights and women's rights are human rights, then we cannot accept the ongoing marginalization of half the world's population. We cannot accept it morally, politically, socially or economically."

Along with heavy feelings about these dark realities came some relief. Clinton exemplified a renewed hope in the new direction the US is taking, supporting the United Nations in creating global programs that integrate women's issues as a way to solve the world's most devastating problems. She admitted that the US has recommitted funding of reproductive healthcare through the United Nations Population Fund and Congress has recently appropriated more than $648 million in foreign assistance dedicated to family planning and reproductive health services worldwide. The US has also pledged funding for new programs and is committed to achieving the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goal Five by reducing 3/4 of the global maternal mortality rate, and instituting universal access to reproductive healthcare.

She also mentioned that the US has launched the Global Health Initiative, a new program that will become the "centerpiece of our foreign policy". Its aim is to assist countries in strengthening their own health care systems, and to ensure that the social and economic factors that impact women's health is ingrained in all global health programs. In addition, this Initiative also serves to reach out to men and boys and encourage them to take part as advocates and allies.

Aside from focusing on women's health care and making available services and programs, the State Department is also interested in expanding opportunities for women to participate in peacebuilding, reversing climate change, and investing in entrepreneurship as a considerable matter for national security. Attitudes and social taboos, she presumes, will shift because of this investment.

At the closing of her remarks, Secretary Clinton drew attention to our role as women, where we may be separated by economic status or education, we must demand, for all of us, to no longer be denied of basic rights. "I've been in many places in many parts of the world where the rich, the educated, the well off, the connected, the powerful, the elite had access to every single form of healthcare. And yet it was denied -- denied by law, denied by culture, denied by taboo, denied by regulation, denied by resources to the vast majority of women in the same societies."

"So part of what we need to do is not only provide services to those who need them, but to change the minds and attitudes of those who can be responsible for delivering those services in countries around the world." She suggests that we close this gap between the haves and the have-nots when it comes to granting rights for all women, "the right that women who have a position in society are able to command cannot, therefore, be denied to the women who live down the street or care for their children or clean their homes or plant their crops, and that we have to do a better job of making the equity argument on behalf of girls and women...."

The anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development is a testament to where we are and where we're going as a global community. The journey for gender equity around the world is by no means over. And though the world may look favorably upon the Obama administration, it is certainly our duty to ensure that they will stay true to their word. I am hopeful that our Secretary of State will continue to lead in charting the pathway to a future where women can live and live freely.

Check out FMF's Global Reproductive Health Campaign and join in the struggle for universal reproductive health care everywhere!

This article was featured in our January 2010 monthly Choices eZine. Sign up for our alerts to stay up-to-date with the latest feminist news and to receive the monthly eZine.

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