Q&A: Reproductive rights key to development - UNFPA chief

by Thin Lei Win | @thinink | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 29 May 2013 11:04 GMT

An NGO health worker holds contraceptive pills during a family planning session with housewives in Manila, on August 6, 2012. REUTERS/Erik De Castro

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The right of women and girls to make a choice about having children - freely and without coercion - should be protected now and forever, says UNFPA chief

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Women and girls drive development around the world, and to empower them to improve the lives of their families and their communities, there needs to be a focus on education, family planning and reproductive rights.

In an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundatoin, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin - a trained doctor, former health minister of Nigeria and now head of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) - describes the importance of reproductive rights and how UNFPA convinces governments and communities that family planning is the right thing to do.

He spoke to Thomson Reuters Foundation on the sidelines of Women Deliver, the largest global conference focusing on the health and well-being of women and girls, from May 28 to 30 in Kuala Lumpur.

Q: What is the current landscape for reproductive rights now, especially in terms of MDG5 (U.N. Millennium Development Goal 5, to reduce maternal mortality and provide universal access to family planning) that is expiring in 2015?

A: In the year 2000, we came together and signed the MDGs, but the world actually turned a blind eye to reproductive health and reproductive rights. We did not get the reproductive rights component to the MDGs until 2007. So it’s only been in existence for six years.

I think and I want to submit that one of the reasons why we haven’t reduced maternal mortality drastically, the MDG 5, is because we haven’t had the universal access to reproductive services present with the MDGs from the beginning.

We now have to quicken it, accelerate it. I think the last 950 days or so of the MDGs is the time to do so. We have the means, and we have the know-how. 

I believe we should scale up our act, work with our partners and coordinate better to direct the resources to the people that need it most. I believe that will save more lives before the post-2015 development space comes into place.

Q: What are your hopes in the post-2015 agenda?

A: We must continue to advocate that there cannot be a development agenda without people. Women and girls are the drivers of development and of communities all over the world, so we need to put them in the centre. We need to ensure their rights, not just reproductive rights, but human rights, are protected. 

But specifically on reproductive rights, they must be able to make choices in their lives - when they want to get pregnant, how many children do they want to have, what intervals, or not to have children at all.

Each of these choices enables them to reach their full potential, like they could go to school and stay in school as long as possible.

We know that education empowers women, and we also know that for every year a girl spends in school, it adds value to ourselves and our communities. We also know when educated girls have children, their children survive better than those without education. It affects the entire life cycle of communities and their people.  

So that right to make a choice, freely and without coercion, is a major one. We must protect it now and in the future. 

Q: Giving women the choice to determine when and whether to have children is controversial in many parts of the world. How do you convince governments that family planning is important?

A: The beauty of the work we do at UNFPA is that we’re on the ground. We’re in more than 150 countries. We work with governments to design programmes with them, understanding their social and cultural context… and we’ve succeeded in many places. 

In Niger Republic, we started what we call the Husband School. We put together men in communities - Muslim clerics, Christian clerics, community leaders, public servants - and we give them step-by-step information and knowledge about what it means for women to exercise their rights. 

You know what? In less than three years, we almost doubled - no, quadrupled the uptake of family planning in that community. It was incredible.

After that success, Sierra Leone started using the same model. They also had incredible success to the extent that at the last World Health Assembly, Sierra Leone got a prize for that. 

So we know what to do on the ground. Sometimes it might not be as fast as you wanted it to happen but the context has to be clear to us.

Q: Why should communities and governments invest in family planning?

A: For every year of education, their ability to earn goes up by like 10 to 20 percent, and incrementally they get better economically. When you add that to the GDP of the country it also adds up considerably. 

I just came from a trip to the Great Lakes of Africa. I visited the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda. The difference was clear. Rwanda paid a lot of attention to gender equality. The growth of their economy is considerable and 56 percent of Rwanda’s parliament are women. They have a large number of women serving in government. That is because of education. That is growth. 

Many studies have shown that for every dollar you spend on family planning, the return on investment could be as much as $9 (in some countries). I don’t think there’s any other investment in the world that actually gives you that kind of return.

Q: Are you concerned about funding since there's a global economic downturn and traditional donors are tightening their belts? 

A: One of the things that have continued to attract resources and attention is family planning. Everybody sees that it’s probably the most effective human intervention you can give that makes a difference to people’s lives, apart from girls’ education.

Q: How important it is for countries to take responsibility for funding these programmes? 

A: The country investment is probably the most important because that’s the sustainable one. Overseas development assistance or official development assistance… it catalyses, but it does not sustain so you need to have domestic resources.

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