When Valerie Hudson evaluates the strength of a nation, whether food security, wealth, peacefulness, or quality of governance, she finds one important thread that underlies it all. “One of the most important factors in the determination of these things is in fact the situation, and security, and status of women,” said Hudson at the Wilson Center on June 24. [Video Below]
John Pielemeier: Population, Health, and Environment Programs Need to Prove It Before Becoming Mainstream›
The Population Council’s annual report highlights new work from one of the largest organizations doing research on the lives of adolescent girls in the developing world. Of particular note is the Council’s Adolescent Girls Empowerment Program, a four-year study launched in May which will involve 42,000 girls in seven countries – Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Guatemala, India, Tanzania, and Zambia. The aim is to evaluate successful strategies for helping girls avoid child marriage, sexually transmitted infections, and unintended pregnancies at a critical juncture in their lives. Council President Peter Donaldson writes that young girls are “one of the potentially most influential figures in the developing world.” A typical 12-year-old girl “in the next few years…will either abandon or continue her schooling, be pushed into marriage and childbearing, or develop a sense of proud ownership of her physical self… As her future is reconfigured, so is ours.”
Ensuring access to family planning is not only a matter of human rights, but can also play a key role in protecting the health of mothers and children. Maternal health experts and program directors met at the Wilson Center on July 31 to discuss the role family planning takes in women’s health in developing countries, what successes family planning programs worldwide have had so far, and what can be done to expand services. Sarah Craven, chief of the UN Population Fund’s Washington office, moderated the event.
›A new framework for sexual and reproductive health is needed, argued panelists in a recent event at the Wilson Center, and the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development would have been the place to start. An international consensus around women’s human rights was developed at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo in 1994, but Carmen Barroso, director of the International Planned Parenthood Federation’s Western Hemisphere Region, said there has been slow implementation, little funding, and furthermore the world has changed significantly since then.
Barroso was joined by Latanya Mapp Frett, vice president of Planned Parenthood Global, as well as two representatives of Planned Parenthood partner organizations, Marco Cerezo of FUNDAECO and Ben Haggai of Carolina for Kibera.
New challenges to the reproduce rights landscape include the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS and decreased funding for international programs. But new opportunities include rapid dissemination provided by the internet and globalization and a subsequent mobilization of youth. “Young people are the largest cohort in history,” Barroso said in an interview with ECSP, both in absolute numbers and in percent of the population. “We have a historical opportunity [to incorporate] them in these decision-making processes.” Additionally, gender and health issues are incresaingly seen by many as linked with the environment and development.
Intersection of Health and the Environment
Marco Cerezo’s FUNDAECO (Foundation for Ecodevelopment and Conservation) is an example of Planned Parenthood’s partnership with other organizations. Based, in rural Guatemala, they shifted from primarily focusing on conservation and sustainable development to incorporating women’s health after finding a vicious cycle of poverty, high fertility, and environmental degradation in the places they worked.
Women’s health was so dire it was holding development back, Cerezo said. “Sustainable community development will not be possible without the education, empowerment, and support to rural women,” they write in their mission statement.
FUNDAECO now acts as a model for the intersection between reproductive health and the environment. Cerezo reported that once women are healthy and empowered through clinics established by FUNDAECO, they become more active in all aspects of the community, including ecological preservation.
Building Healthy Communities
Ben Haggai, who works in Nairobi’s biggest slum, Kibera, further reiterated the need for integrated programs. Carolina for Kibera has a number of programs to improve the quality of life for residents, he said, and has a particular focus on youth with sports associations and education programs.
Youth are the best reproductive health educators, Haggai said, as they are able to talk frankly with their peers. The NGO trains peer youth educators to reach out to community members about reproductive health and other issues like substance abuse. Since the young people work as volunteers, Haggai said, they are motivated only by a desire to improve their communities.
A Natural Intersection
Latanya Mapp Frett agreed that sexual and reproductive health aligns quite naturally with issues of sustainability. “We try to work in the countries overseas in Latin America and Africa where we focus particularly on non-traditional health sectors,” she said in an interview with ECSP following the panel. “One of those sectors is the environment.”
While emphasizing that contraceptive use is a cost-effective way to ensure sustainable development, Mapp Frett cautioned against framing sexual and reproductive health only in the context of reducing fertility. While this may have been common in the past, she noted, it’s important to ensure that women have the right to make childbearing choices for themselves.
Mapp Frett also urged policymakers in the United States to look to developing countries for intersections between development, the environment, and reproductive health. She said that Planned Parenthood’s partner organizations, including FUNDAECO and Carolina for Kibera, have found these connections and successfully partnered with already existing networks like churches to more effectively reach the community.
Translating Into Effective Action
Each member of the panel spoke about the challenge of articulating the need for sexual and reproductive health programs to people outside the field. Barroso mentioned research conducted by Brian O’Neill which found that meeting the current unmet need for contraception would slow population growth enough to reduce emissions by 17 percent.
Cerezo emphasized the importance of consensus among the staff of a given organization, saying it is difficult to make a case to agronomists and farmers if a culture clash exists within the institution. Haggai agreed, adding that focusing on reproductive issues is an important measure of prevention which helps protect both the environment and the health of women in a community.
For Mapp Frett, women’s reproductive and sexual health is indivisible from other aspects of development. “As you talk about sustainable development, you talk about ensuring that women are empowered to make sure that our earth is sustainable,” she said.
The panel took place before the UN Conference on Sustainable Development got underway in Rio. Participants had high hopes for a renewed focus on gender and reproductive rights at the conference. Unfortunately, language on reproductive rights was first weakened and then omitted entirely from the final outcome document (see the account written by ECSP’s Sandeep Bathala at Rio for more on the conference).
While pressure from the Vatican and the G-77 kept reproductive health out of the outcome document, it was not entirely forgotten at the conference. A number of side events highlighted the importance of reproductive rights, especially in the context of the environment and development.
Hillary Clinton also re-affirmed U.S. commitment to access to contraception and reproductive health care. “Women must be empowered to make decisions about whether and when to have children,” she said at the conference on Friday. “And the United States will continue to work to ensure that those rights are respected in international agreements.”
Clinton shared the urgency expressed by the panelists at the Wilson Center. “There is just too much at stake, too much still to be done,” she said. “We simply cannot afford to fail.”
Photo Credit: Sean Peoples/Wilson Center.
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