Q&A: Why a 25-year-old agreement still matters for women and girls

Vietnam has expanded reproductive health services, which include family planning, pre- and post-natal care and HIV prevention. Photo by: Doan Bau Chau / UNFPA

BANGKOK — Delegates from 36 countries throughout Asia and the Pacific gathered in Bangkok, Thailand, this week to gauge their progress on people-centered development, from providing sexual and reproductive health education to supporting ageing populations.

“Some of the rights and freedoms that we all took for granted, it’s all being challenged.”

— Laura Londén, deputy executive director, UNFPA

The midterm review conference of the Asian and Pacific Declaration on Population and Development will feed into a larger global review to be held next year, marking the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo, Egypt, in 1994.

There, United Nations states recognized that “human beings are at the center of concerns for sustainable development” and adopted a program of action to spur progress. The recognition that reproductive health and rights, as well as women's empowerment and gender equality, are cornerstones of population and development programs was a watershed moment, according to Laura Londén, U.N. Population Fund deputy executive director.

The ICPD program of action — which stresses universal access to sexual and reproductive health and helped lay the groundwork for components now included in comprehensive sexuality education programs — remains all the more urgent a quarter-century later in the era of the Sustainable Development Goals, according to Londén.

Women’s labor force participation has largely stalled in the region, and in 2017, an estimated 140 million women had an unmet need for contraception according to UNFPA. On top of this, rising conservatism in the Asia-Pacific region and globally is leading to growing pushback against key tenets of the program of action.

Still, Londén was optimistic about the success stories shared this week, particularly on increasing access to sexual reproductive health services and ensuring the well-being of rapidly ageing populations. Delegations recognized declines in maternal and infant mortality as some of the major health achievements of the region, but reported mixed results in increasing contraceptive prevalence.

Devex caught up with Londén on the sidleines of the conference to find out her takeaways for UNFPA, and why she thinks the International Conference on Population and Development still plays an integral role in meeting the SDGs.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some of the gaps that stand out to you particularly in Asia and the Pacific when it comes to making good on ICPD promises?

The gaps really have to do with progress not being as maybe fast or as thorough as it should be.

I mean, [Asia-Pacific nations] have made incredible progress when it comes to maternal mortality reduction, getting more girls in school for longer, contraception availability is better in terms of sexual reproductive health and rights, there is a whole slew of improvements. But the inequalities between countries and within countries are prevailing — and in some cases widening. 

You have still over 1.2 billion people in the world who live in extreme poverty, and there was a lot of discussion about the feminization of poverty, of elderly women in particular who are plunged deeper into poverty because they earn less in the course of their lifetime than men do. And for us, of course, if you focus on UNFPA’s part, it’s still the fact that too many women die in childbirth.

How would you say that that ICPD is faring in this day and age, in terms of the pushback against rights and choices, particularly in some Asian and Southeast Asian nations?

There was discussion around rising pushback and conservatism in Asia-Pacific — but of course it's not only the Asia-Pacific where some [nations] are against key parts of the program of action.

So I think there was concern about that and the fact that some hard-won individual rights and freedoms are at risk of being curtailed. Personally, I was really heartened by the fact that it seemed so alive as an agenda and that civil society present was able to give a flavor of what the ICPD is and does at country level. This is something I think we're a little bit missing overall … [ICPD] is a watershed instrument and everybody I guess knows the substance, but they don't always associate it with the name.

Why is it so important?

It really was an evolution of how we look at population and development, which went more from a [focus on] population targets and numbers to a rights-based approach … Not to say, of course, that data and figures aren’t important, but the ICPD is about people's lives and people's right to [make choices] in their life. In 1994, it was a landmark agreement, and I would say that it still is.

On the issue of conservatism, I hear that even some countries that have long been ICPD champions are changing course. What is your perception of this?

Yes, there are of course member states that are more cautious these days than what they would've been in 1994.

It has to do with some of the language, some of the terminology is more sensitive. Some of the rights and freedoms that we all took for granted, it’s all being challenged. It’s not like there isn't pushback, but … [this conference] was really good in the sense that it allowed the countries to talk about what has been achieved to spur themselves and others onward and upward.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.