New recommendations by a high-level panel on population and development mark a major step forward in advancing the health of women and girls, who are widely acknowledged as the crux of global development but still suffer needlessly from violence, discrimination, unwanted pregnancies, and high rates of maternal mortality.
On April 25, the new, independent High-Level Task Force for the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) launched its Policy Recommendations for the ICPD Beyond 2014: Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights for All.
Created in 2012, the task force is charged with reviewing and advancing the work of the 1994 ICPD in Cairo. That meeting resulted in a groundbreaking program adopted by 179 governments, placing the human rights of women, including their health and reproductive rights, at the center of the sustainable development agenda.
Co-chaired by former presidents Joaquim Chissano of Mozambique and Tarja Halonen of Finland, the panel aims to galvanize political will to close gaps in implementation and advance a forward-looking agenda that ensures the rights of all—putting sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality, and empowerment of women and young people, especially adolescents, front and center in the post-2015 development agenda.
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The task force notes that 800 women die each day as a result of avoidable pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications, while 222 million women who would like to prevent pregnancy are not using modern contraception—contributing to 80 million unplanned pregnancies and 20 million unsafe abortions each year. One in three girls under 18 will be married without her consent in low- and middle-income countries, while up to seven in ten women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes.
ICPD’s vision remains as relevant and urgent now as it was 19 years ago.
The task force has shown courage and foresight in addressing major challenges confronting women’s health, human rights, and development. It has also taken the lead in advancing issues related to sexual orientation and gender identity, violence, and marginalized and vulnerable people, including those living with HIV. Many of its recommendations resonate with those of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, which the United Nations Development Programme convened on behalf of the Joint UN Programme on HIV/AIDS.
We now know that structural and social inequalities, often perpetuated by punitive and discriminatory laws, function as barriers to accessing HIV and other health services, fueling the spread of HIV and hindering development. At the same time, ill-conceived laws and harmful customary practices such as child marriage—epidemic in some parts of the world—reinforce profound gender inequalities, as evidenced by the disproportionate impact of HIV on young women and slow progress toward reducing maternal mortality.
Calls for equal rights, human rights, and dignity for women and girls are rightly growing around the world. A new agenda will succeed the anti-poverty Millennium Development Goals in 2015. It must make women’s health and empowerment a top priority—reflecting the crucial role women play in advancing development. The new task force report should inform that agenda.