Nairobi Population Summit Draws Attention & Debate Over Reproductive Health Rights

Nairobi, Kenya  – A three day summit marking 25 years since the historic UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo opened here in the Kenyan capital on Tuesday, with a focus on actions that save mothers’ lives, make contraception and family planning more accessible, and end violence against women and girls.

But as the Nairobi Summit (ICPD25)  kicked-off under the theme “Accelerating the promise,” abortion opponents and faith-based groups were holding a parallel meeting at a Catholic church next to the venue, saying that the meeting didn’t reflect their views and positions.

“The reproductive rights of women and girls are not up for negotiation. We shall protect and uphold them. Reproductive rights are human rights and we will not back down,” Natalia Kanem, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director said in the opening session, in an oblique reference to the protests outside.

The Nairobi ICPD25 Summit is organized by the government of Kenya and Denmark, and the UNFPA. About 12,000 people from 160 countries, ranging from heads of state, ministers and parliamentarians to hundreds of representatives of non-governmental organizations, are set to attend.

Natalia Kanem, Executive Director of the UNFPA, speaks at the ICPD25

“The purpose of the conference is not to talk about ‘what’, but to discuss ‘the doing’. The goal is to speed up the momentum,” Kanem told a news conference on November 12. “We have to finish the intended business of the ICPD. [This] remarkable turnout gives me confidence we will reach the goal by 2030.”

Discussions are focusing on five themes; sexual reproductive health as part of Universal Health Coverage; funding required to realise ICPD’s programmatic goals; demographic diversity and its power to drive economic growth and sustainable development; measures to end gender-based violence and harmful practices; and the right to sexual and reproductive health care.

“We need more action,” said Rasmus Prehn, Denmark’s Minister for Development Cooperation. “The summit is about how, but not what to accelerate.”


Women’s Rights & Well-Being Key to Prosperous Societies

In an opening address, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said the large numbers of conference attendees confirmed the premise that advancing people’s rights, and in particular women’s rights, choices and well-being, is the path to prosperous and resilient societies.

“… Our women are the gatekeepers to family health; they exert such a powerful influence on intergenerational outcomes for their children. Empowering women essentially empowers all our families, empowers our societies, empowers our nations and it empowers the world,” said Kenyatta.

In the milestone 1994 meeting in Cairo, 179 governments called for the empowerment of women and girls in all spheres of their lives, including in areas regarding sexual and reproductive health.

Since then, Kenyatta said, the world had changed a great deal, with respect to population and development-related issues.

“The world faces increased health threats including threats from reproductive cancers such as breast, cervical and prostate cancer. And there are also growing environmental pressures including the urgent threat of climate change,” said the Kenyan leader, while adding that these health challenges had made the Cairo commitments more urgent and more complex.

Significant achievements in strengthening maternal health care, and expanding access to quality contraception information and services, are being highlighted at the event. At the same time, speakers have underlined that millions of women and girls have not befitted from those gains.

“…let us bear in mind the fact that the most important participants in this Summit are actually not in this Conference,” said Kenyatta. “I am referring to the 1-in-5 women from all corners of the world that this year alone, will experience gender-based violence, most likely from someone who is close to them.”

Closing Equity Gaps Will Cost Billions
Uhuru Kenyatta welcomes delegates at the Summit’s opening. @Nairobi Summit

One recent study, discussed at the conference, suggests that an estimated at US $264 billion will be needed over the next decade to achieve universal access to modern family planning, end preventable maternal deaths, and end harmful practices such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

But only US$42 billion in development assistance is currently targeted to those aims, according to the study, a joint project of the UNFPA and John Hopkins University in collaboration with Victoria University, the University of Washington and Avenir Health. So an additional US$222 billion would be needed in the next decade to close the gaps, whether in form of direct investment, private spending or domestic allocations.

At the conference, however, some new financial commitments were also made. Private sectors organizations including the Ford Foundation, Johnson & Johnson, Philips and World Vision, among others, pledged to mobilise US$8 million. A press release said that the funds would support achievement of the triple goals for 2030 of zero preventable maternal deaths, zero unmet need for family planning, and zero gender-based violence and harmful practices. Groups ranging from health care and technology companies to private foundation, International NGOs and sports have also stepped forward with new commitments.

“We know how much and where we need to invest. These figures are a drop in the ocean compared to dividends,” Dr. Kanem. “Smart and affordable investments will transform the lives of women and girls.”

UNFPA statistics indicate that an estimated 232 million women want to prevent pregnancy but are not using modern contraception. More than 800 women die from preventable causes during pregnancy and childbirth each day, and 33,000 girls are forced into marriage. Still every year, more than 4 million girls are subjected to female genital mutilation.

“As critical accelerators for the Sustainable Development Goals, the outcomes of ICPD must be carried forward. The success of the global agenda for sustainable development, our common framework for the people, planet, prosperity, peace and partnership, depends on it,” said United Nations Deputy Secretary-General Amina Mohammed, speaking at the Summit’s opening ceremony.

Proponents say that the summit will re-energise the global community, breathe new life into the ICPD agenda and sustain and amplify gains made since 1994. It will be a springboard for governments and other organizations to announce voluntary, global commitments – including financial ones-that will accelerate progress. “The Nairobi Statement is not a government statement, but a stakeholders’ statement,” said Dr. Kanem.


Conference Opponents Stage Parallel Event

But on Monday, the day before the Nairobi Summit opened, groups opposed to the meeting’s aims and themes demonstrated in the streets outside of the venue. As the conference opened Monday, the protesters held their own, parallel meeting at a Catholic church next door. Under the banner of what they called a Pro-family Caucus, they cautioned governments against making legal commitments to the Nairobi outcome document, and to rather reaffirm their commitment to the ICPD Cairo Programme of Action, which they said had a stronger “pro-life and pro-family” platform.

The groups opposing the current conference say it has been organized without the authority of the United Nations General Assembly. They add that it has ignored the traditional consensus-building approach of the UN, in favor of imposing a “liberal sexualization” agenda. They have also charged that the summit deliberately excluded civil society groups or members of national delegations who support their positions.

“The organizers of the Nairobi Summit….believe in anti-population and pro-abortion ideology. They have openly stated their intention to use the Nairobi Summit to advance their ideology internationally and apply pressure on pro-family groups and countries that are pushing back against the SRHR [sexual and reproductive health rights] agenda,” said the groups in a statement.

Anti-abortion protestors march in the street at the start of the ICDPD25. Photo: Fredrick Nzwili

Image Credits: @NairobiSummit , @Atayeshe.

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