Twenty more Niles needed to feed growing population

September 10, 2012

SOURCE: Reuters

The world needs to find the equivalent of the flow of 20 Nile rivers by 2025 to grow enough food to feed a rising population and help avoid conflicts over water scarcity, a group of former leaders said on Monday.


Credit: UN Photo/Stuart Price

Looming water shortages and conflict

Factors such as climate change would strain freshwater supplies and nations including China and India were likely to face shortages within two decades, they said, calling on the UN Security Council to get more involved.

"The future political impact of water scarcity may be devastating," former Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien said of a study issued by a group of 40 former leaders he co-chairs including former US President Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela.

"It will lead to some conflicts," Chretien told reporters on a telephone conference call, highlighting tensions such as in the Middle East over the Jordan River.

The study, by the InterAction Council of former leaders, said the UN Security Council should make water the top concern. Until now, the Security Council has treated water as a factor in other crises, such as Sudan or the impact of global warming.

It said that about 3,800 cubic km (910 cubic miles) of fresh water was taken from rivers and lakes every year.

"With about 1 billion more mouths to feed worldwide by 2025, global agriculture alone will require another 1,000 cubic km (240 cubic miles) of water per year," it said. The world population now is just over 7 billion.

The increase was "equal to the annual flow of 20 Niles or 100 Colorado Rivers", according to the report, also backed by the U.N. University's Institute for Water, Environment and Health (UNWEH) and Canada's Gordon Foundation.

Demand will exceed supply in India and China

It said the greatest growth in demand for water would be in China, the United States and India due to population growth, increasing irrigation and economic growth.

"By 2030, demand for water in India and China, the most populous nations on Earth, will exceed their current supplies," the report said.

Global warming, blamed on human emissions of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels, would aggravate the problems.

"We say in the U.N. system that climate change is all about water," said Zafar Adeel, director of UNWEH. Severe weather events - such as droughts, floods, mudslides or downpours - were becoming more frequent.

UN-Water, which coordinates water-related efforts by the United Nations, will organize a meeting of foreign ministers this month and separate talks among experts on September 25 to look at ways to address concerns over water.

The report said there were examples of water-related conflicts, for instance between Israelis and Palestinians over aquifers, between Egypt and other nations sharing the Nile, or between Iran and Afghanistan over the Hirmand River.

But it said the world had many chances to conserve water and to shift towards what it called a "blue economy". Fixing leaky pipes could help - in developing nations, about 40 percent of domestic water is lost before it reaches households.

Nations such as Israel have limited water use, for instance by shifting to less water-intensive crops or recycling. Olives or dates need less water, for instance, than oranges.

The report said that annual spending on improving water supplies and sanitation in developing nations should be raised by about US$ 11 billion a year. Every dollar spent would yield an economic return of US$3 to US$ 4, it estimated.

One billion people have no fresh water and 2 billion lack basic sanitation.

About 4,500 children die of water-related diseases every day - the equivalent of 10 jumbo jets falling out of the sky with no survivors, Chretien wrote.

This article, published by Reuters, has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance.

Asian megacities risk disaster, finds study

August 15, 2012

SOURCE: Asian Development Bank (ADB)

Asia must act now to pave the way for green, resource-friendly cities or face a bleak and environmentally degraded future, says a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report. 


Credit: UN Photo/Mark Garten 

With growth comes environmental stress

"Asia has seen unprecedented urban population growth but this has been accompanied by immense stress on the environment," said Changyong Rhee, ADB’s Chief Economist. "The challenge now is to put in place policies which will reverse that trend and facilitate the development of green technology and green urbanisation."

In a special chapter of its flagship annual statistical publication, Key Indicators for Asia and the Pacific 2012, ADB examines the challenges and opportunities associated with the region’s breakneck urban boom. It also details measures needed to turn cities into environmentally sustainable, inclusive growth centers.

Since the 1980s, Asia has been urbanising at a faster rate than anywhere else, with the region already home to almost half of all the world’s city dwellers. In just over a decade, it will have 21 of 37 megacities worldwide, and over the next 30 years another 1.1 billion people are expected to join Asia’s already swollen urban ranks.

This breakneck expansion has been accompanied by a sharp rise in pollution, slums, and widening economic and social inequalities which are causing rapid environmental degradation. Particularly disturbing are urban carbon dioxide emissions, which if left unchecked under a business-as-usual scenario, could reach 10.2 metric tons per capita by 2050, a level which would have disastrous consequences for both Asia and the rest of the world.

Rising urban populations mean that over 400 million people in Asians cities may be at risk of coastal flooding and roughly 350 million at risk of inland flooding by 2025. Unless managed properly, these trends could lead to widespread environmental degradation and declining standards of living.

Opportunities must be seized

The report notes that there is hope. The growth of cities can have many advantages, including critical masses of people in relatively small areas, making it easier and more cost effective to supply essential services like piped water and sanitation. Rising education levels, factories leaving cities, the growth of middle classes and declining birth rates typically associated with urbanisation also have a broadly beneficial impact on resource use and the environment.

Conservation and efficiency improvements will help. Many countries have begun diversifying their energy sources to include renewables and have been investing in energy-efficient buildings and sustainable transport systems. Imposing congestion and emission charges, as in Singapore, and removing inefficient fuel subsidies, as in Indonesia, can make prices more fully reflect social costs. But the report says much more is needed, including the development and mainstreaming of new green technologies. Early examples are waste-to-energy conversion plants, as in the Philippines and Thailand, or "smart" electric grids.

For urbanisation to be not only green but inclusive, policy makers need to promote climate resilient cities, in order to prevent disasters like the 2011 Bangkok floods, and improve urban slum areas, the report points out.

This article, published by the Asian Development Bank, has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance.

London Family Planning Summit: What is a result in a rights-based world?

July 12, 2012


At the London Family Planning Summit yesterday PSNs Karen Newman moderated an event co-hosted by Marie Stopes International and the UK Sexual and Reproductive Health Network on rights-based approaches to health.


Credit: Kate Holt/IRIN

In a world in which donors are increasingly oriented towards accountability and results-based financing it becomes ever more important to ensure that the results we define encompass fully informed choice from a range of sexual and reproductive health services that respect and protect rights.

This civil society side-event at the summit offered a bridge between the "rights based" and "results based" divide, and specifically looked at how and why rights are (i) fundamental in themselves and (ii) can help deliver the goals of the summit, namely 120m new users by 2020 within the context of a comprehensive vision of sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Participants explored what "results-based" really means, and identified ways of ensuring that the extent to which services respect and protect rights are at the heart of measuring results. Critical issues, including gender and choice were discussed from a range of important perspectives, with speakers  including global leaders from the sexual and reproductive health and rights donor, service provider and advocacy communities.

Following inputs from the panel speakers a lively civil society-driven moderated debate on these issues.

The panel

Welcome and introduction
Dana Hovig – CEO, Marie Stopes International

Honoured Guests

  • Right Hon. Khumbo Kachali, Vice President and Minister of Health, Malawi
  • Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development

Panel of discussants:

  • Anders Norstrom, Sweden’s Ambassador for Global Health (invited)
  • Kate Gilmore, Deputy Executive Director (Programme), UNFPA
  • Gita Sen, Director, DAWN
  • Dorothy Ngoma, National coordinator on Safe Motherhood (Presidential Initiative), Malawi (invited)
  • Faustina Fynn-Nyame, Country Director of Marie Stopes International

Moderator: Karen Newman, Co-ordinator, Population and Sustainability Network.

Read about the UK SRHR's Network statement issued in advance of the summit, calling for it to exceed its ambitions.

Rich countries pledge $2.6bn for family planning in global south

July 11, 2012

SOURCE: The Guardian

Rich countries have pledged $2.6bn over the next eight years at todays family planning summit in London, in what was described as a breakthrough for the worlds poorest women and girls. The money, coupled with commitments from developing countries, is expected to provide access to family planning for 120 million women in the global south.


Credit: Russell Watkins/Department for International Development

Transforming women's lives

"This will be a breakthrough that will transform lives," said the UK international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell. "The commitments made at the summit today will support the rights of women to determine freely, and for themselves, whether, when and how many children they have," said Mitchell at the London Family Planning Summit hosted by the Gates Foundation and the Department for International Development (DfID), designed to put what has been a politically loaded issue back on the global development agenda.

More than 20 developing countries made commitments to boost spending on family planning and to strengthen women's rights to ease their access to contraception.

The summit's organisers say commitments made at the summit will result in 200,000 fewer women dying in pregnancy and childbirth, more than 110m fewer unintended pregnancies, over 50m fewer abortions and nearly 3 million fewer babies dying in their first year of life.

The conference sought to reverse two decades of neglect on family planning, especially during the Bush years. The event brought together several African leaders - including Rwanda's President Paul Kagame and Tanzania's President Jakaya Kikwete - NGOs and the private sector, and featured an unannounced drop-in by David Cameron.

The prime minister received a warm welcome for his strong advocacy of women's rights and of the UK's aid programme. "Women should be able to decide freely and for themselves whether, when and how many children they have," he said in an inspiring address to the summit. "It is absolutely fundamental to any hope to tackling poverty in our world."

Developed and developing countries unite

Besides pledges from donor countries, the conference heard commitments to expand family planning programmes from a parade of health ministers from developing countries. Malawi said it would raise the minimum marriage age to 18, India said it planned to have universal access to family planning by 2020, and Senegal said it would invest in a mass-communication campaign involving religious and political leaders.

"The Catholic church is with us as family planning is consistent within the context of marriage," said Senegal's health minister, Dr Awa Marie Coll-Seck. "As for Muslim religious leaders, we have some on the family planning co-ordinating committee. If the religious leaders are with us, we can really make headway."

The EU development commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, said he was heartened by the commitment shown by developing countries at the summit. "The first success is that developing countries have been very active," he said. "It's not the case that donors have driven the event."

The EU on Tuesday pledged €23m ($28m) ahead of the summit.

"Helping to provide family planning services is one of the best investments that a country can make in its future," Piebalgs said. "In today's world, all women must have the ability to choose the size of their families. It is about promoting gender equality and women's rights; but it is also about protecting maternal and child health."

The US has not pledged money on the grounds that it has already committed to spending $640m this year. For Rajiv Shah, the head of the USAid development agency, the summit was important to encourage "new donors to enter this space". Shah insisted that the US, where family planning can be conflated with abortion by the religious right, had bipartisan backing "because we promote family planning on a voluntary basis. It reduces unwanted pregnancies and abortions."

Holistic action is needed

NGOs welcomed the focus on cultural attitudes as well as on increasing resources for family planning. "People have come here not just with specific and tangible pledges but have been willing to tackle thornier issues of culture. You have to tackle both condoms and culture," said Justin Forsyth, chief executive of Save the Children. "Girls in remote areas have never heard of contraception, even if they have, unless there are changes of attitude, things won't change. DfID and the Gates Foundation emphasise both sides of the coin, but the question of culture has to be addressed by developing countries themselves. I'm encouraged that those governments are also emphasising those issues. It feels like we are getting a common approach from donors, NGOs, developing countries and the UN."

Forsyth said another benefit of the summit would be its galvanising effect on family planning in much the same way that the recent London summit on vaccines attracted large donations. The summit, he added, made the wider case that aid works and can make a difference at a time of austerity.

The aim of the London summit on family planning is to raise $4bn to expand access to contraception for 120 million women in the global south by 2020. According to the UN, about 220 million women in the south who do not want to get pregnant cannot get reliable access to contraception.

The UK has committed £516m ($801m) over eight years to achieving the summit goal of enabling an additional 120 million to have access to modern methods of family planning by 2020.

Just as important as the pledges of money was the sentiment that women's and reproductive rights lay at the core of family planning. "Commitments are wonderful, but for them to work women have to be central in decision making," said Theo Sowa, interim chief executive of African Women's Development Fund.

PSN and the London Family Planning Summit

Read about the summit side-event What's a result in a rights-based world co-hosted by MSI and the UK SRHR Network, moderated by PSN's Karen Newman.

Read about PSN's work with the UK SRHR Network, and other civil society initiatives, calling for the summit to exceed ambitions and to ensure that unmet need for family planning is addressed as part of holistic rights-based sexual and reproductive health service provision.

This article, published by The Guardian, has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance. The information about PSN-related activities at the summit has been added by PSN.

The Lancet calls for the rebirth of family planning

July 10, 2012

SOURCE: The Lancet

Ahead of the London Family Planning Summit taking place this week, leading medical journal The Lancet has published a Family Planning Series reviewing the evidence for the effects of population and family planning on peoples well-being and the environment.


Credit: Natalie Bailey/IRIN

Setting out the evidence

The series underlines the crucial importance of family planning to the health of women and children and charts a path towards the goal of universal coverage. Opening with an editorial entitled The rebirth of family planning,the series papers examine global population trends and policy options, contraception and health, the connection between demographic change and climate change, the economic dividends of family planning, and how human rights can be deployed to satisfy unmet needs for family planning.

Alongside the papers, research is published reporting the effects of contraceptive use on maternal mortality, a viewpoint investigating the politics of family planning, and comments from country and global leaders.

Writing in a commentary to the series UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin said;

"Evidence of the many benefits of family planning is abundant and compelling, as The Lancet's Family Planning Series makes clear. Family planning empowers women and is essential to their enjoyment of other human rights. It can contribute to the reduction of poverty and hunger and would avert 32% of all maternal deaths and nearly 10% of childhood deaths, if it were available to all who wanted it."

A timely publication

The series appears ahead of the London Summit on Family Planning, hosted by the UK Government, on Wednesday, July 11, 2012. The summit will bring together participants from across the world to mobilise global action supporting the rights of 120 million additional women and girls to access family planning without coercion or discrimination.

The Lancet Series amalgamates the latest thinking underpinning these crucial deliberations, showing how lack of access to family planning carries a huge price, not only in terms of women's and children's health and survival but also in economic terms.

Read the publication

The whole series is available from The Lancet website (requiring a free registration).

PSN and UK SRHR Network call for FP Summit to exceed ambitions

July 4, 2012

SOURCE: PSN & the UK SRHR Network

Ahead of the London Family Planning Summit taking place next week, PSN has joined other members of the UK Network on Sexual & Reproductive Health and Rights in signing a supportive statement calling for the summit to exceed ambitions.

Credit: Natalie Bailey/IRIN

The statement from the UK SRHR Network:

The UK SRHR Network welcomes and applauds the Department for International Development (DFID) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) London Family Planning Summit and calls on donors, governments and civil society to not only attain but to exceed its goals.

The human right of a woman to decide when and if she becomes pregnant with an informed choice of modern methods of contraception underpins women’s empowerment and the right to health. But it is a right that has long been neglected and under-resourced:

  • Together with safe services for abortion, family planning is marginalised as a taboo associated with immorality and female sexual liberty,
  • Together with bed nets for malaria, family planning is under resourced as a preventative health measure; its health impact hugely undervalued compared to curative interventions,
  • Together with maternal health care, family planning is neglected because its major beneficiaries are women,
  • And, perhaps uniquely, family planning is often overlooked because of its association with coercive programmes in the past that must have no place in modern health policy.

In the context of this marginalisation, total global donor support for family planning fell to just over US$300 million in recent years, while at national level many governments have no budget line for family planning. As a result, today there are 220 million women who want access to contraception but are unable to obtain it.

Many will suffer debilitating injury or die from complications in a pregnancy they never wanted. Others are left trapped in poverty and low social status. This represents a global failure to ensure that women’s reproductive rights are respected and protected.

The Summit’s goal of 120 million new users of family planning by 2020 is therefore welcome. But the international community must recognize that providing family planning to all women who want to use it is an eminently achievable goal. Today's total global unmet need can be met for only US$4 billion per year - an investment that would save almost US$6 billion in maternal and newborn health costs.

As a SRHR Network, we recognise that improving access to contraception alone will be insufficient to achieve the full range of sexual reproductive health and rights that were globally endorsed at the ICPD. Essential components of SRHR include integrated services for the diagnosis, prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections; access to safe abortion services; and legal reform for women’s equity and the protection of sexual and reproductive rights of women, men, young people and sexual minorities.

Furthermore, a fundamental principle underpinning all action from the summit must be to ensure that women have the right to decide freely on matters related to sexual and reproductive health without discrimination or coercion, and irrespective of their marital status. The Summit must attach great importance to monitoring and accountability to ensure that services are delivered but also that the right to full informed choice, freedom from coercion or violence, is always respected and that low income, disadvantaged and vulnerable groups including adolescents are reached. This will require the full participation of civil society in monitoring and accountability structures in order to include from the community level.

But the Summit's goals will not be met - let alone surpassed - without the active and vocal support of all stakeholders. We urge governments, donors and other CSOs and consortia to back the Summit, to take this rare opportunity to champion these issues, and to significantly increase investment in voluntary family planning programmes that respect and protect rights. Together we hope that the international community will use the London Family Planning Summit to build a global momentum that not only meets new users by 2020, but exceeds it.

Civil society declaration to the summit

PSN has also joined 1,292 organisations in 177 countries in signing a Civil Society Declaration to the London Family Planning Summit, published in the Financial Times in advance of the summit as part of a Special Report on Sexual and Reproductive Health. The supportive letter and signatories will be presented to Prime Minister Cameron and Mrs Gates at the London Summit on Family Planning on 11 June.

Read: The UK SRHR statement with the full list of agencies signing on.

Reproductive rights are critical to sustainable development: messages from Brazils youth for Rio+20

July 3, 2012


While attending the Rio+20 summit, PSNs Sarah Fisher participated in a visit to a community centre where young people where young people were learning about their sexual and reproductive health and rights, as reported in a blog by Nature journal.

Credit: Sarah Fisher

At the same time as governments at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development were negotiating away reproductive rights and some were even questioning the links between women's health and rights and sustainable development, young people in Rio’s Cachoeirinha favela were articulating the reality of what it means to be denied access to sexual and reproductive health information, choices and services.

Sarah made the trip to the favela along with other SRHR activists, journalists and conference delegates, to visit a community centre where BENFAM, the Brazilian member association of an of International Planned Parenthood Federation, provides reproductive health services and holds weekly meetings for local youth to learn about and discuss sexual and reproductive health.

The visit was an opportunity to learn about the great work being undertaken in the community by BENFAM and their teams of local peer educations, as well as to hear direct from the twenty-five or so young people who met with us about their experiences and views about sexuality, reproductive health and other pressing issues for young people living in poverty in Brazil.

You can read more about the visit in a blog written by a journalist from Nature who visited the favela and spoke with PSN’s Sarah Fisher on the trip about the situation regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights issues in the Rio+20 negotiations.

Pregnancy kills or injures one million girls a year, warns Save the Children

June 26, 2012

SOURCE: Save the Children

Pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide, with one million dying or suffering serious injury, infection or disease due to pregnancy or childbirth every year, Save the Children said today in a report issued ahead of the London Family Planning Summit.


Credit: Save the Children

The tragedy of young motherhood

In a new report, Every Woman’s Right: How family planning saves children’s lives, the aid agency highlights that girls under 15 are five times more likely to die in pregnancy than women in their 20s.

Babies born to younger mums are also at far greater risk and around one million babies born to adolescent girls die every year, Save the Children said. In many countries it is normal for young girls to be married off and quickly fall pregnant before their bodies have sufficiently developed, according to the report. An estimated 10 million girls under 18 are married every year, or more than 25,000 every day.

In addition, contraception is not accessible or affordable for many women and girls and others are prevented or put-off from using it because of social or cultural attitudes or myths about side-effects.

Some 222 million women around the world who don’t want to get pregnant currently don’t have access contraception, resulting in 82.3 million unintended or mistimed pregnancies in developing countries every year.

"The issue of children having children - and dying because their bodies are too immature to deliver the baby - is a global scandal," said Save the Children’s Chief Executive, Justin Forsyth.

"This is a tragedy not just for those girls but also for their children: babies are 60% more likely to die if their mother is under 18."

Mr Forsyth continued: "In the developing world, family planning isn’t just a lifestyle choice. Children's lives depend on it."

Calls for the London Family Planning Summit

World leaders are congregating in London next month for a family planning summit hosted by the UK government and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Save the Children is urging them to increase the global availability of contraceptives and empower girls and women to decide whether and when they have children - and how many.

Save the Children is also calling for equal access to family planning for all women; for women’s rights to be guaranteed and enshrined in law; and for investment in education and health workers.

Meeting the entire global need for contraception could prevent 30% of maternal deaths and 20% of neonatal deaths worldwide - potentially saving 649,000 lives a year.

Highlights from the report

The report also highlights:

  • Globally, one in five girls will have had a child by the age of 18.
  • Young mothers are likely to be poor, less educated and living in rural areas.
  • A woman's lifetime risk of maternal death – the probability that a 15 year old girl will ultimately die from a maternal cause – is 1 in 3,800 in developed countries but 1 in 150 in developing countries.
  • A national survey in Nigeria in 2005 found almost a third of women believed that certain methods of contraception could lead to female infertility. In Uganda, doctors reported that women believed taking contraception caused cancer and if they got pregnant again they would have deformed babies.
  • In some countries up to 30% of first sexual encounters are forced: 24% in rural Peru; 28% in Tanzania; 30% in rural Bangladesh; and 40% in South Africa.
  • Healthier birth spacing, where mothers delay conceiving until 36 months after giving birth, could prevent 1.8 million deaths of children under five a year – 25% of annual child deaths.
  • Increased access to family planning would help facilitate demographic transition, with enormous potential benefits for development.
  • Every £1 spent on family planning saves at least £4 that would be spent treating complications from unintended pregnancies.
  • The United Nations International Conference on Human Rights, Article 16, Tehran 1968 states: “The protection of the family and of the child remains the concern of the international community. Parents have a basic human right to determine freely and responsibly the number and the spacing of their children

You can read the report Every woman’s right: how family planning saves children’s lives on the Save the Children website.

This article, published by the Save the Children has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance.

PSN responds to the Rio20 consensus document - the future we wanted

June 22, 2012


As world leaders convene in Rio de Janeiro for the final day of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development PSNs Sarah Fisher reflects on the consensus document reached, having participated in the summit as part of the Population and Climate Change Alliance.

Credit: UN Photo/Maria Elisa Franco

As world leaders convene in Rio de Janeiro for the final day of the Rio+20 UN Conference on Sustainable Development PSNs Sarah Fisher reflects on the consensus document reached, having participated in the summit as part of the Population and Climate Change Alliance.

PSN is pleased with the hard-won reaffirmation at Rio+20 of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, which is recognition of the importance of sexual and reproductive health, and gender equality for sustainable development. The good language in the text on sexual and reproductive health is a key achievement, particularly given that there were no references to sexual and reproductive health or family planning in the zero draft. Our concern is that The future we want does not go far enough.

Reproductive rights and glaringly absent, and the outcome document fails to acknowledge the critical relationship between population dynamics, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality and sustainable development. Addressing these linkages is essential for the achievement of sustainable development, for if women do not have their health and rights, including reproductive rights, there can be no sustainable development.

While population and reproductive rights issues and their critical relationship to sustainable development have proved too controversial for Rio+20, the message of the PCCA at Rio+20 was clear. Population dynamics can and must be addressed in ways that respect and protect human rights, most importantly by ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health programmes, including family planning. Women must be empowered to plan and decide the number, timing and spacing of their pregnancies. This is essential not only for the health and well-being of women and their families, but for the planet.

It is also important to overcome the common and simplistic perception that the solution to sustainable development lies in addressing either consumption or population. The relationships between population dynamics and consumption are complex but critical. Both population and consumption are important to sustainable development, and therefore addressing population dynamics in ways that respect and protect human rights must be part of sustainable development approaches.

An overview of the The future we want in relation to the PCCA’s key advocacy priorities is available here.

Gro Harlem Brundtland censures Rio20s gender equality outcomes

June 22, 2012

SOURCE: The Guardian

Absence of reproductive rights reference in UN Womens call to action and the Rio+20 outcome document is a step backwards, says former Norway prime minister.

Credit: UN Photo/Maria Elisa Franco

A missed opportunity

Gro Harlem Brundtland, the former Norwegian prime minister and chairwoman of the Brundtland commission, has criticised the call to action issued by UN Women on Thursday for not including women's reproductive rights in the text.

Brundtland, a member of the Elders, said omitting a specific reference to reproductive rights represented "a step backwards from previous agreements" on women's empowerment and gender equality. She also criticised vague wording on gender in the Rio+20 draft outcome document.

The call to action, presented at a high-level event hosted by UN Women and the Brazilian government, reaffirmed signatories' commitments to equal rights enshrined in the UN charter on human rights. It also reasserted commitments made at UN conferences over the past 20 years, but did not explicitly mention reproductive rights.

UN Women called for governments to "take urgent measures to ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by women, including the right to sexual and reproductive health", similar wording to that used in the Rio+20 draft document.

The call to action was signed by female leaders including the Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, Costa Rica's president Laura Chinchilla Miranda, the Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the prime minister of Denmark, and the head of UN Women Michelle Bachelet.

We cannot risk regression

Brundtland and Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former UN commissioner for human rights, told the event it was important that the momentum on women's rights, built up over the past 40 years, was not allowed to slip away.

In 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development, held in Cairo, acknowledged for the first time that women's human rights include reproductive rights. In Beijing the following year, the fourth world conference on women reasserted this right.

The UN Women call to action said:

"The future women want is a world that is healthy, free from hunger, fear, violence and poverty; a world that prioritises equity, human rights and gender equality, where women and men, girls and boys have equal rights and opportunities and equal access to resources, education, healthcare, employment, leadership and decision making, a world where women constitute a dynamic force for realising the benefits of sustainable development for present and future generations."

It called on governments to fully integrate gender equality and women's empowerment in any future international development framework, accelerate the full and equal participation of women in decisionmaking at all levels, eliminate all discriminatory barriers faced by women, and be proactive in addressing the factors preventing women from equally accessing, owning and managing resources and having the same job opportunities as men.

Bachelet said: "We know from research that advancing gender equality is not just good for women, it is good for all of us. When women enjoy equal rights and opportunities, poverty, hunger and poor health decline and economic growth rises. Advancing the equal rights of men and women creates healthier and more sustainable societies and economies."

From words must come action

Rose Mwangi, from women's advocacy organisation Soroptimist International, based in Nairobi, said she was not too concerned with the omission of reproductive rights in the call to action. She felt the decision about what to include was a matter of give and take, saying: "As the president [of Brazil] put it, we have to collaborate. It's always about give and take. But that doesn't stop us from working on the issue of reproductive rights. We can still implement what we want to implement. It's still in our hands, not the document."

Amanda Khozi Mukwashi, director of policy at VSO, based in London, said the important thing was what action followed the words. "I am encouraged that there is some political will, but we have to continue to do more as civil society to hold them to account," she said.

At the launch of a report on population and sustainable development on Thursday, Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UN Population Fund, said slowing population growth can only occur "if women have the right, the power and the means to decide freely how many children to have and when".

This article, published by The Guardian, has been reproduced by PSN. Minor changes and cuts may have been made for the purpose of brevity and relevance.