Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund. "The choices that women make has a great deal of impact on communities," Osotimehin answered to the question about why women should be at the heart of development. Photo by: JM. Ferré / UNHCR

Up to 20,000 girls give birth every day, 95 percent of them in the developing world, according to the annual State of World Population report released on Wednesday by the United Nations Population Fund, focused this year on adolescent pregnancy and its consequences on girls’ well-being, education and productivity.

Maternal mortality is almost double for girls under 15 than for older females, 70,000 adolescent deaths occur every year from complications from pregnancy and childbirth, and adolescent pregnancy usually interrupts a girl’s schooling, the survey adds.

In order to address this, women must be at the center of development efforts, according to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund.

“Women are at the center of people’s lives,” Osotimehin said during an exclusive interview with Devex. “So being able to provide the enabling environment for them to exercise their rights and make choices in their lives is … crucial for us to be able to have the kind of abilities and the kind of vitality we want to have in our communities and nations.”

Here are the highlights from our conversation with the UNFPA chief about the findings of the report and his agency’s priorities for the future:

Can you tell us a bit about the 2013 State of World Population report and its findings?

I want to say with a degree of concern that everywhere I’ve been in the last 18 months, there’s been a concern about teenage pregnancy, in various countries, both developing and developed. And we believe that we need to address this issue globally and make sure that people are aware that a teen that gets pregnant is a teen that is denied her full potential, she is a teen that cannot contribute to national development wherever she is. So it’s something which is a serious thing, and we, as a global community, need to address this with some degree of aggression.

This is about bringing these girls to a visible level for everybody to see and then trying to provide examples of where we’ve had some success in dealing with teen pregnancy or where teenagers who have been pregnant have been helped back to their feet so that they can be productive for themselves and their children.

You said recently that women should be at the heart of development. Why is that?

Women are at the center of people’s lives. They are role models. They look after us. And the choices that women make has a great deal of impact on communities. So being able to provide the enabling environment for them to exercise their rights and make choices in their lives is so crucial for us to be able to have the kinds of abilities and the kind of vitality we want to have in our communities and nations. For us, it is at the heart of human development.

Now, let me step back and say that that’s what the international community saw in 1994 when they signed on to the Cairo Agenda, which is about women’s empowerment and women’s right to make choices. And that’s what UNFPA has continued to do since that time, ensuring that, at the policy level, we advocate for women’s rights and we provide the opportunity for men and for women to make choices about their lives.

Millenium Development Goal No. 5 — a 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality and universal access to reproductive health — is really at the center of your efforts. What is UNFPA doing to help accelerate the achievement of MDG 5 by 2015?

Well, the truth of the matter is, I want to reiterate something that many of us don’t know much about, which is that MDG 5 has two parts: “A” and “B.” The A part talks about the reduction of maternal mortality, the B part talks about universal access to sexual and reproductive health and the promotion of the rights of women to make choices. Now, what we had in 2000 was the only the A part; the B part did not exist. It was only in 2007 that we adopted the B part. And I want to wager that if we had adopted the B part in 2000, we would have actually have been able to accelerate the reduction of maternal mortality beyond what we have now. Especially, as we know that when women have access to reproductive health services, including family planning, maternal mortality is reduced by one third. So, going forward, we need to advocate that we have these goals rolled over into the next development agenda, so that MDG 5b, which came into effect in 2007 and really has not had its own full life course will be given the pride of place.

What are the biggest hurdles when it comes to achieving those goals?

I think the biggest hurdle is access. 220 million in the world today want family planning and are not getting it. So it’s more about access and increasing investments in family planning and the ability to reach that woman who is in rural Mali or Nigeria or Bangladesh with the services required to be able to make a choice. I think that’s the biggest obstacle.

Related issues are human resources for health and the ability to engage with communities. We need to engage with various people in the communities to be able to provide informational education about reproductive health and reproductive health services, especially family planning, and to demonstrate to them that we are saving lives and making sure that women have choices, choices that can save their own lives and the lives of their children.

What are UNFPA’s priorities for the post-2015 development framework?

What we think needs to be included is the issue of young people, because we believe that the ability to reach young people with the appropriate educational skills set, including comprehensive sexuality education, gives them a choice in their lives to decide when they want to marry, who they want to marry, and how many children they want to have at what spacing.

Number two is that we also see that to a very large extent we have not paid too much attention to the use of data, especially as it involves the movement of people — migration, immigration — aging in some respects, the issue of young people in some developing countries, and the need for us to focus on this so governments can build robust social protection systems for these people around the world, would be one of those things we would like to promote.

And finally, everything we talk about with regard to people in the next development agenda must be about the rights of people. Human rights are indivisible, and the rights of people must feature very clearly. And that is what is going to insure health access to the vulnerable, so that we can actually have truly inclusive and sustainable development.

What are the population issues that are most neglected or misunderstood?

I think that for us the one issue that requires a greater deal of attention is the issue of the mega trends of populations: the issue of aging, the issue of young people — how we as a global community need to deal with it so that we can take maximum advantage of the demographic bonus and also make sure that we look after the rights of young people and older persons. Those are the things that I would like to call attention to, but especially to the rights of young adolescent girls.

You know, there are 600 million adolescent girls in the world today. Can you imagine if we were able look after their interests and make sure they go to school, make sure their rights are protected, make sure they are skilled? It would transform the world.

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About the author

  • Paul Stephens

    Paul Stephens is a former Devex staff writer based in Washington, D.C. As a multimedia journalist, editor and producer, Paul has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Washington Monthly, CBS Evening News, GlobalPost, and the United Nations magazine, among other outlets. He's won a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for a 5-month, in-depth reporting project in Yemen after two stints in Georgia: one as a Peace Corps volunteer and another as a communications coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development.