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Human Development That Sidetracks a Woman’s Power of Choice


In Cambodia, improvements in women’s sexual and reproductive health care has led to considerable cuts in maternal deaths. UNFPA

The 2014 United Nations Human Development Report appeared at the end of July wrapped around the title “Sustaining Human Progress,” a goal that moves beyond meeting the targets that can measure achievement at any given time but cannot promise continuity or permanent improvement. The report’s subtitle, “Reducing Vulnerabilities and Building Resilience,” suggests how to plan ahead to tackle the long-term issues that are still holding many millions of people back from achieving their potential or are losing ground they had gained. It is a critical time to hold the line.

The report, published just before UN members debate and adopt a new post-2015 international development agenda, says that 1.5 billion of the world’s 7.2 billion people live in areas of conflict. Half the world’s people have no social security protection. Natural disasters brought on not only by climate change but also by environmental destruction threaten large populations. Globally, 1.2 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day, and if the poverty line were doubled to $2.50, nearly half the world’s people would be poor, many tumbling from a marginal middle-class life.

The UN Development Program says in the survey — the 23rd in a series begun in 1990 — that “we draw attention to the risk of future deterioration in individual, community and national circumstances and achievements, and we put forward policies and other measures to prepare against threats and make human development progress more robust going forward. . . . . We ask why some people do better than others in overcoming adversity. For example, almost everywhere, women are more vulnerable to personal insecurity than men are.”

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In that context, it is puzzling to see how little attention is given in this report to population pressures, from the home to the community to the nation, and the significant gap in access to family planning, the important starting point to women’s rights, which frees them to improve their own health and lives and those of their children. It would seem timely to emphasize a little more boldly that more than half of humanity is female and access to sexual and reproductive health care may be the foundation for everything else women, especially poor women, can build upon in their lives and contribute to human development in their societies.

The UN talks continually of women being at the center of development. They need to be given the tools to make that a reality. It is hardly a coincidence that women in richer countries, who have enjoyed sexual and reproductive rights for decades, however circumscribed in some places, have helped to build the most highly developed economies. It is also not a coincidence that a densely populated, poor Muslim-majority country like Bangladesh has met most of the Millennium Development Goals in no small measure because family planning and spacing of children has reduced birthrates, freeing millions of women for employment, education or entrepreneurship projects supported by nongovernmental organizations dedicated to development.

In the more than 200 pages of the 2014 report, the word contraception appears only once (page 74) in a five-paragraph summary of vulnerabilities linked to gender, a section that does, however, devote extra space to worsening violence against women globally.

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Violence, or fear of it, is often the reason women cannot or will not seek reproductive health care that includes modern contraception. When they can find it, poor women without rights often ask for injectable contraceptives that leave no evidence or trace. There are many stories of women murdered when caught with pills or detectable contraceptive devices.

The report acknowledges, gingerly, that “Maternal mortality ratios are also generally higher in countries where women have less control over their physical integrity.” The reduction of maternal mortality is the Millennium goal that lags most glaringly, and it deserves more attention in less circumspect language if the vulnerabilities of women are to be seriously addressed. Sex education and the provision of contraception for teens and other young people vulnerable to early deaths from unwanted pregnancies (a byproduct of child marriages and ignorance about sex) are also almost entirely missing from this report.

There appears to be considerable pressure from some governments and religious institutions to downplay youth sexuality in general across UN agencies. In the campaign to give women what they need to take control of their lives through real advances in sexual and reproductive health, the UN has fallen behind others with the same goals. The British government and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are two leaders now demanding that contraception be made universally available — not because anyone wants to revert to population control imposed from outside, but because women everywhere ask for this often lifesaving help.

In the larger picture, the UN seems to be headed for post-2015 development policies stripped of strong commitments to women’s reproductive health services and rights. Falling back on calls for rights rather than specific solutions is often meaningless in societies where women’s social and legal status is abysmally low. This institutional shying away from confronting reproductive health in the current proposed document laying out a future development agenda for the UN was analyzed and exposed in detail by PassBlue in an essay on July 17 by Rebecca Brown, director of global advocacy at the Center for Reproductive Rights and a former Peace Corps volunteer in Gambia.

Almost 20 years have passed since the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo laid out clearly how to give women the power to contribute to society. At the Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995, the year after Cairo, more prescriptions were advanced and commitments made to women’s rights, explicitly including sexual rights. Yet report after report still repeats calls made decades ago, often in the vain hope that even more international commitments will change a bleak picture in many countries where governments have chosen not to follow through on pledges they have already made.

“An international consensus on universal social protections would open national policy space for better services for all people, reducing the race to the bottom,” the 2014 Human Development Report says. “Elements of a global social contract would recognize the rights of all people to education, health care, decent jobs and a voice in their own future.” Those words could have been written half a century ago or more.       .

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

Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.

Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”

Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.

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