At UN General Assembly marking 20th anniversary of historic Cairo conference, governments reaffirm women's reproductive rights

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The Honorable Bathabile Dlamini, South Africa’s Minister of Social DevelopmentSouth African Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini: efforts to transform the economy cannot be divorced from all sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion rights.

At a Special Session of the United Nations General Assembly at the end of September, dozens of heads of state and other government leaders described their countries’ progress in advancing women’s reproductive health and rights, reaffirming the Programme of Action that came out of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in 1994.

In the words of United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, the Cairo consensus “was built on fundamental principles affirming that development should center on people. It also emphasized the value of investing in women and girls. And it affirmed the importance of sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights."

President John Dramani Mahama of Ghana noted his country’s commitment to the Cairo agenda, specifically praising the Reducing Maternal Mortality and Morbidity (R3M) program in his country, in which Ipas is a leading partner: “Its objectives are to support government to achieve a 39 percent contraceptive prevalence rate and reduce maternal mortality due to unsafe abortion. R3M partners have provided long-acting and permanent methods (LAPM) to 106,126 women, comprehensive abortion care services to 133,291 clients. This resulted in averting 254,000 unintended pregnancies, 1250 maternal deaths and 161,000 unsafe abortions.”

But even as nations reaffirmed the Cairo Programme of Action, many countries and nongovernmental organizations also expressed their frustration during the special U.N. session and side events with the lack of progress in critical areas of sexual and reproductive rights. South African Minister of Social Development Bathabile Dlamini declared: “In Africa we are not doing well in terms of the substantive economic emancipation of women. Women continue to be marginalised by the mainstream economy. It is for this reason that efforts to transform the economy...cannot be divorced from all sexual and reproductive rights, including abortion rights and services, as part of a comprehensive and more radical approach to reproductive justice.”

In a reference to persistent opposition from conservative groups, she concluded:  “We cannot remain stuck in the battle to retain the Programme of Action for the next twenty years – we must build on it, so that next time we don’t spend time debating whether we need it, but rather reflect on the progress that has been made with extending reproductive justice to all of Africa’s women and other marginalized groups.”

Ipas President and CEO Elizabeth Maguire, who was a member of the United States government delegation to the 1994 conference, expressed her dissatisfaction with progress in addressing unsafe abortion, a life-and-death issue for women that figured prominently in the Cairo negotiations:  “It is deeply frustrating that we have not been able to see stronger action in support of safe abortion care by governments and international organizations in line with the Programme of Action and subsequent international agreements.  In the 21st century, we should no longer tolerate women continuing to die by the tens of thousands each year when simple technologies could save their lives and ensure their ability to exercise their fundamental reproductive rights.”

At the Special Session, governments and NGOs also looked ahead to the decisions still to be made about new global development goals to follow after 2015, when the current Millennium Development Goals will be replaced. Many leaders called for the advancement of human rights, gender equality and women’s empowerment to be high on the post-2015 agenda, as well as the need and rights of young people.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Anne C. Richard, in her statement to mark the Cairo anniversary, outlined additional priorities for the global community:  “To make reproductive health and respect for reproductive rights a reality for all, we must get health services to those who still lack them, including many women, young people, and those caught in conflicts and crises.  We must also stand up for every individual, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity, and for their ability to make their own choices about sexuality and reproduction, and to make these choices free from coercion, discrimination, and violence.”