Last month in Nairobi, 9,500 delegates from government and civil society convened in recognition of the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). In 1994, the ICPD laid out an ambitious platform to advance sexual and reproductive health and rights, reflecting the global consensus that women’s rights are human rights.
In the twenty-five years since, great advances in reproductive health have been made. Access to contraception has increased – but not enough. Maternal mortality has dropped precipitously – but not enough. And gender-based violence – child marriage and female genital mutilation have decreased – but still not enough.
At the Nairobi Summit on ICPD 25 the focus was on accelerating the promise – completing the as of yet unfinished business set out 25 years ago. However, despite having set ambitious goals to reduce unmet family planning needs, preventable maternal mortality and gender-based violence to zero, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and others committed to reproductive health and rights are, in truth, simply trying to hold their ground.
Eleven state governments actively spoke out against the ICPD agenda, opposing its focus on certain rights – namely abortion. The US government opposed the use of the term “sexual and reproductive health and rights” suggesting that it “may be used to actively promote practices like abortion”, denying that such a right even exists. Anti-abortion activists who handed out flyers outside the venue complemented politicians opposed to safe abortion; some activists infiltrated and disrupted abortion-related sessions at the conference.
The opposition to abortion care – one element of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services – remains, despite the existence of global human rights documents affirming its importance. Unsafe abortion is a leading cause of maternal mortality. As one participant stated during the closing ceremony, “we will never reach the goal of zero maternal mortality without addressing the need for safe legal abortion.”
But opposition to abortion wasn’t the only challenge. Even those supportive of the ICPD agenda expressed dismay at how long it is taking to fulfill its goals. Melinda Gates, who spoke at the opening plenary stated, “it is unacceptable that gender equality is my granddaughter’s granddaughter’s generation away.”
The forceful commitments of Canada, Denmark, Kenya, the UK and others underscored that the key to achieving the ICPD agenda – and the UNFPA triple zero goals – will be structural in nature. Donor commitments and civil society movements, particularly those led by youth, girls and women, will drive that structural change. The question now is just how long it will take to achieve the promise of the ICPD. It has already taken 25 years too long.