Nafis Sadik
describes progress and setbacks since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo ten years ago.

The great achievement of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994 was to reconcile development policy makers, the women’s movement and demographers. The Cairo consensus recognized that demographic outcomes cannot be dictated. Women and men have the right to choose their own future and, when they do, everyone is better off.

If women can choose the size and spacing of their families, they have fewer children than their mothers did. Families are smaller and population growth is slower. We are already seeing the results. Families are half the size they were in 1960. Countries like Mexico, the Republic of Korea and Thailand have seen plummeting fertility and rocketing economic growth. And women – able to make choices in one area, fertility – are beginning to assert themselves in others, such as in improving education and ending gender violence.

The Cairo conference gave a huge boost to this process. The consensus enunciated the right to reproductive health as part of people’s right to health. This is especially important for women and girls, who are uniquely vulnerable in all societies, for a variety of reasons. The Cairo consensus says that health and education systems must recognize this, and give girls and women the strength, the information, the services and above all the confidence they need to navigate their way through life. The goal of the Cairo Programme of Action is that reproductive health care should be available to all who need it by 2015.

Shocking statistic
One woman dies every minute as a consequence of pregnancy – almost all of them in developing countries. This shocking statistic is the result of inadequate health systems, but it also stems from ignorance and neglect of women’s needs. One of the Cairo goals – now one of the Millennium Development Goals – is to reduce this toll by three quarters by 2015.

The Cairo consensus recognized that gender violence in all its aspects is a threat to reproductive health. Gender violence comes from one single source – the subjection and oppression of women. Fistula and female genital cutting, honour killings and violence in the home will end if men recognize women as equals – with equal rights to education and health, reproductive health first and foremost; with choices in marriage and childbearing; and with the right to involve themselves in the economy and the wider society.

Women’s empowerment and gender equality are absolutely vital if countries are to confront and defeat the HIV/AIDS pandemic. Countries where infection rates are rising – including most countries in Asia-Pacific and Africa, and many in Latin America and Europe – can learn many lessons from the most seriously affected countries in Africa; but the most important one is to support and empower women. If women could make their own choices and decisions about sexual contact they could stop the pandemic in its tracks. And men who support and empower women are vital partners.

Universal goal
Half of all new HIV infections are among young people. The overwhelming majority are infected through sexual contact. Some extremists pretend that young people will be safer if they are ignorant about sex: but the evidence is all the other way, in favour of trusting young people with the information and the means to protect their lives and health. The Programme of Action states that young people should have the information and services they need, as they prepare for adult responsibilities. That should be the universal goal.

The great virtue of the Cairo consensus is that it is practical. It emerged from countries’ own experiences – and ten years of implementing the Programme of Action has only confirmed its relevance. In the last 12 months, regional conferences in Asia and Latin America have resisted extremist pressure and confirmed their commitment to the consensus. The Cairo Programme of Action is the road map to gender equality, better reproductive health and balanced population growth in the 21st century 

Dr Nafis Sadik is Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for HIV/AIDS in Asia and was formerly Executive Director of UNFPA and Secretary-General of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development. She is a board member of the United Nations Foundation.

PHOTOGRAPH: Bishwa R.Shakya/UNEP/Topham

This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Miles to go before we relax | Practical consensus | Power shift | Equally effective | People | Peace of mind, piece of land | The young ones | Fuelling change | At a glance: Women, health and the environment | Aishwarya Rai | Unprecedented opportunity | Books and products | Chemical inheritance | Toxic trespass | First empower | Citizen engagement | Adding feminine perspective | After all ‘nature’ is female... | A unique voice

Complementary issues:
Culture, values and the environment 1996
Poverty, Health and the Environment 2001
Water, Sanitation, People 2004

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources

Timothy E. Wirth, President of the United Nations Foundation and former U.S. Senator:
ICPD+10 speech September 2004