Women’s health and rights advocates around the world applauded the appointment today of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of Nigeria as Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the international development agency that assists countries in developing the technical and health systems capacity to improve reproductive and sexual health. UNFPA, according to its mission statement:
Promotes the right of every woman, man and child to enjoy a life of health and equal opportunity. UNFPA supports countries in using population data for policies and programmes to reduce poverty and to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.
Osotimehin, who will replace outgoing executive director Thoraya Obaid whose term officially ends December 31st, is currently Professor of Medicine at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, and the African Spokesperson for the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health.
He previously served as both Minister of Health and Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for the Control of HIV and AIDS. Throughout his tenure as Director General of the AIDS agency, he advocated strongly for evidence- and rights-based policies, even as his own government, under pressure from both the Bush Administration and Nigerian clerics, turned toward failed abstinence-only-until marriage programs to secure United States funding. Moreover, he welcomed advocates as partners. In a prior position working on US international policy, I personally had the occasion to meet him in Nigeria and work with him and his staff on advocacy around HIV and AIDS prevention issues.
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The issue of who would take the lead of UNFPA comes at a critical juncture, when ultra-conservative political and religious groups are seeking to limit or completely eliminate women’s reproductive and sexual rights both in the United States and abroad. Advocates expressed confidence in his ability to meet current challenges.
“Babatunde ‘s appointment comes at a pivotal time for sexual and reproductive rights and health,” said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition (IWHC). “Dr. Osotimehin brings to the job substantial knowledge of and an impressive track record in health policies, programs and services.”
“The appointment of Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin as the new head for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is an opportunity to recommit ourselves to addressing the needs of the world’s women and children,” said United Nations Foundation President Senator Timothy E. Wirth.
“More than 215 million women around the globe want to determine the number, spacing, and timing of their children, but lack access to reproductive health and family planning options,” said Wirth. He continued:
Poor women and adolescent girls in developing countries tend to be disproportionally denied access to these services. A former Minister of Health of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, Dr. Osotimehin has championed reproductive health and rights and global development challenges with a clear understanding of the importance of women and girls in meeting those goals. This kind of experience will be critical in helping UNFPA continue to meet its mission of making certain that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect.
The IWHC statement lauded Dr. Osotimehin for his:
“unparalleled ability to build consensus, between the capital and state governments, as well as inside and outside the government, on multi-dimensional strategies and investments to address several of the country’s most challenging sexual and reproductive health issues.”
“This makes Dr. Osotimehin particularly qualified to lead an agency whose mandate is to promote and protect sexual and reproductive health and rights,” said the statement.
Dr. Gill Greer, Director General of International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Chair of UNFPA’s NGO Advisory Panel, said:
“As a key partner of the UNFPA, IPPF looks forward to working with Dr. Osotimehin to achieve our joint goals of delivering better services and outcomes for women, men and young people. In particular, our collective pledges to do more to achieve the MDGs and support the new Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health intended to save the lives of 15 million children, prevent 33 million unplanned pregnancies, and prevent the deaths of 800,000 women and girls from pregnancy and childbirth.
“There is a critical need, “continued Greer, “to refocus our efforts on Family Planning to achieve these goals.”
[The] omission [of family planning] from the first 7 years of investment in the MDGs made it invisible and what is invisible is inevitably overlooked and underfunded. So now we must make up for lost time, lost opportunities and lost lives – not only to address the needs of the estimated 215 million women who are unable to access the modern contraception they need and want, but also to address the needs of the 1.8 billion young people who are approaching reproductive age.
Bene Madunagu of the Nigerian group Girls Power Initiative, also praised his appointment. “We at Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) are overjoyed to hear that Professor Osotimehin will lead this fundamentally important agency,” said Madunagu. “He has been one of our most unfailing defenders and supporters in the struggle to get the rights of girls recognized and ensure that they have the power to exercise them.”
“Thanks to visionary leadership from Prof. Osotimehin, GPI is able to work with the State AIDS Control Agencies to make comprehensive sexuality education and health services available to young people,” said Madunagu. “And my generation of women has also benefited enormously from his devotion to women’s health and rights.”
Osotimehin has made clear his own commitment to these issues:
“We must invest far more in comprehensive reproductive health services, including those that address problems of HIV, in order to reach the girls and women who are not likely to use separate HIV services for fear of stigma and violence…
“…In Nigeria, we are painfully aware that girls and women typically cannot negotiate when, where or with whom they have sex; that far too few have access to affordable health services; and that sex education is not available or accessible to many girls.”
Given the direct threats to women’s lives and health posed by anti-choice groups in every region, he faces serious challenges in his new role.
“As Dr. Osotimehin knows only too well, the task ahead is not an easy one,” said Greer. “It will require promises to be kept, new partnerships to be made. Civil society’s unique role in delivering this agenda is something Dr. Osotimehin has consistently supported.”
Wirth sees Osotimehin’s appointment as critical to the success of the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched earlier this year by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
“The strategy ties the health of the world’s women and girls to the achievement of major reductions in infant and maternal mortality, HIV infections and global poverty,” notes Wirth. “Dr. Osotimehin, in his new position, will have the opportunity to significantly contribute to the success of this global strategy and advance full implementation of the International Conference on Population and Development’s Programme of Action, which emphasizes universal access to reproductive health services.”