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The US Backs the UN on Women’s Rights and Family Planning



Ethiopian sheep farmers
An all-woman sheep-fattening cooperative in Freweyni, Ethiopia. The country has made important gains in women's health and in reducing child marriage. MILLENNIUM PROMISE

Speaking in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, at the third international conference on family planning, Anne C. Richard, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration, urged strong support for United Nations efforts to promote  the rights of women and girls, including universal access to family planning, as the organization frames new development policies over the next two years.

Excerpts from a State Department transcript of her Nov. 15 speech follow:

The issues that you’ve discussed and advanced this week, issues related to human rights, access to life-saving health services and equity in the provision of development assistance are critical to the health and well-being of millions of women and girls around the world.

Looking back on the years since the new millennium began when we challenged ourselves as a global community to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, we can see that we have made progress. . . . But the goal where the least progress has been made is the one that strikes at the heart of issues related to equity and equality for women, and that’s MDG 5, reducing maternal mortality and providing universal access to reproductive health, including family planning.

We all know five key facts: first, that there can be no development without a focus on women and girls. Second, women cannot fully participate in development unless their reproductive health needs are met and their reproductive rights are respected, protected and fulfilled. Third, the right of women to decide if, when and how often to have children is crucial to their ability to take control of many other aspects of their lives. Fourth, the most effective way for women to have autonomy over their fertility is through access to safe and effective modern forms of contraception. Fifth and finally, those least likely to have access to reproductive health care are the world’s poorest and most marginalized people. They include those living in rural or remote areas, those displaced by humanitarian crises, the disabled, indigenous people, and, importantly for my remarks today — young people.

So, in taking stock of where we’ve come in advancing the world’s development agenda and measuring progress on the Millennium Development Goals, we must recognize that specific obstacles continue to stymie our efforts to reach women and accomplish MDG 5.If future efforts at sustainable development are to be effective, we must do more to break through these barriers and reach those most in need.

Let’s look at what has been achieved right here in Ethiopia. The Government of Ethiopia has emphasized the importance of providing sexual and reproductive health services to women throughout the country. The United States is proud to be a partner in support of these efforts, including increasing the percentage of married women using modern contraceptives from 15 to 29 percent in a few short years. Ethiopia has also achieved impressive reductions in child marriage. And most impressive, Ethiopia recently achieved MDG 4, which called for the under-five mortality rate to be reduced by two-thirds. The United States is also working in partnership with other key donors and governments to reach women in underserved areas across Africa.

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We live in a world of seven billion people. Many countries have larger populations of young people than ever before, and this is especially true among developing or middle-income countries. Today, almost half the world’s population is under the age of 25, with two billion under 18. The majority of these young people live in developing countries.

Anne C. Richard, US assistant secretary of state
Anne C. Richard, US assistant secretary of state for population, refugees and migration.

Just two weeks ago, UNFPA [UN Population Fund] released its 2013 State of the World Population Report. The topic this year is adolescent pregnancy. UNFPA reports that two million girls between the ages of 10 and 14 give birth every year. That figure is astounding and haunting. Just to clarify, this isn’t that two million girls get pregnant every year; it’s that two million girls give birth, so the actual pregnancy figure can be assumed to be higher. And nine in 10 of these births occur within an early or forced marriage.

These early pregnancies put girls and their children at great risk of death and disability. Together, we must do more to ensure girls reach their full potential and are protected from early or forced marriages, as well as other forms of gender-based violence.

This conference is taking place at the same time as many global review processes are currently under way to help us reassess, realign and rededicate ourselves as a global community to a core set of development priorities. These [reviews] include the International Conference on Population and Development (or ICPD) Beyond 2014 process; the 20-year review of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action; UN-led discussions on the post-2015 development framework; and, given the theme of this conference, I would also add to this list the London Summit on Family Planning held in July 2012 and the Family Planning 2020 goals.

The next two years will see us through a critical juncture when governments will reflect on what is important for global development, and decisions will be made that will influence priorities for the design of aid programs and the allocation of resources.

Lessons from the ICPD Program of Action and the MDGs tell us that it is the role of governments to address the conditions that compromise a woman’s ability to exercise her reproductive rights, including the right to attain the highest standard of reproductive health. Providing services is essential, but it is not enough. We need supportive policy and legal frameworks, as well as innovative, country-owned programs that address the needs and desires of the people they serve.

This also includes effective programming to address violence against women and children.

Every effort must be made to raise the value of girls in society, and to address the underlying conditions and beliefs that lead to early and forced marriage, as well as physical and sexual violence, which is the reality for too many young women around the world. I applaud UNFPA for leading the way in highlighting this critical issue.

Focusing on the notion of shared responsibility and collective action is the most effective way to address global inequality and inequity. The United States envisions one post-2015 agenda that addresses poverty, inclusive growth and sustainability. Ultimately, we want a set of goals that is ambitious, measurable, limited in number and that can be easily explained to the general public.

Addressing the fundamental needs and development of individuals must be at the heart of the post-2015 framework.

For women, this means careful consideration of reproductive rights. For — ultimately — whether we succeed or fail will depend on our ability to empower people, particularly women and girls, to make informed decisions for themselves.

Looking ahead, I want to assure you that the United States will continue to promote sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in development discussions. When it comes to the empowerment of women and girls, though, it’s not enough that we simply reaffirm the goals and policies outlined almost 20 years ago.

Across the board, it’s clear we need strong global leadership and enhanced understanding of these challenges in order to continue to make progress.

On this front, we look again to civil society — including the organizations that many of you in the room today represent — to hold us accountable and ensure that our policies and programs are of the highest quality, based on facts about what is needed and what works and meet standards of accessibility, availability and acceptability.

It is a United States priority that women and girls everywhere achieve the freedom to decide for themselves on matters of their own sexuality so that they may enjoy strong, healthy families and live in thriving communities and nations.


We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Dulcie Leimbach is a co-founder, with Barbara Crossette, of PassBlue. For PassBlue and other publications, Leimbach has reported from New York and overseas from West Africa (Burkina Faso and Mali) and from Europe (Scotland, Sicily, Vienna, Budapest, Kyiv, Armenia, Iceland and The Hague). She has provided commentary on the UN for BBC World Radio, ARD German TV and Radio, NHK’s English channel, Background Briefing with Ian Masters/KPFK Radio in Los Angeles and the Foreign Press Association.

Previously, she was an editor for the Coalition for the UN Convention Against Corruption; from 2008 to 2011, she was the publications director of the United Nations Association of the USA. Before UNA, Leimbach was an editor at The New York Times for more than 20 years, editing and writing for most sections of the paper, including the Magazine, Book Review and Op-Ed. She began her reporting career in small-town papers in San Diego, Calif., and Boulder, Colo., graduating to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and then working at The Times. Leimbach has been a fellow at the CUNY Graduate Center’s Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies as well as at Yaddo, the artists’ colony in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.; taught news reporting at Hofstra University; and guest-lectured at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and the CUNY Journalism School. She graduated from the University of Colorado and has an M.F.A. in writing from Warren Wilson College in North Carolina. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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