NEW YORK CITY – At a forum at the Rubin Art Museum earlier this week, a group of global leaders, including two top US officials, talked about how reproductive health issues for women were wrongly cast as only a women’s issue.
Instead, they said reproductive health was intimately connected to the world’s population boom, climate change, water and sanitation crises, economic downturns, educational rates, and development overall. And greater reproductive health rights would trigger a brighter future for the 600 million young women in the developing world, including the 10 million girls who are married before they reach the age 18, said the panelists, members of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health of Aspen Global Health and Development.
And yet, reproductive health and family planning is generally not a focus on the world stage. In fact, the topic is often avoided.
“If you can help young women feel empowered, where they themselves want to delay pregnancy, they can become the actors in their own lives,” Maria Otero, US Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs said at the Rubin Museum of Art. “What this Council allows us to do is think about the issue of reproductive health, one that is interconnected to all other issues” related to development.
Jan Eliasson, former president of the UN General Assembly and former foreign minister of Sweden, told a crowd of 200 people at the Rubin Museum of Art of a trip he took to the Darfur region of Sudan two years ago and found village wells poisoned, forcing women to walk for 50 minutes to collect impure water.
“The kids all had gray skin, and here the women were walking 50 minute to get dirty water, bringing it back to kids who were dying,” he said. “These women are the ones not getting educated, they are the ones dying in child birth, because there is no clean water. The point I make is that whatever we do, we have to realize we all interconnected. Here is a water and sanitation issue, and here also is a reproductive health issue.”
The session on reproductive health comes during a week when the United Nations is re-examining progress on a wide range of health issues, including a special focus on non-communicable diseases. It also comes against a backdrop of cutbacks in foreign assistance from governments around the world due to the prolonged global economic crisis. Many fear that reproductive health funds will fare even worse in years ahead.
The Council is asking for an increase of $3.6 billion in international funding for reproductive health, roughly double current support.
Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and chair of the Global Leaders Council, acknowledged that family planning issues were “not a comfortable issue for a lot of people. But it is a fundamental human rights issue, it is a fundamental issue of principle, a fundamental issue of values. It connects to everything – water, sanitation, development. We have to somehow break through and get a very significant increase in funding.”
Robinson cautioned, however, about expecting too much change overnight. She told a story of how she graduated from Harvard Law School in 1968 and returned to Ireland “imbued with Harvard Law School arrogance,” she said, drawing laughter. “That prompted me to stand for the Irish Senate at age 25. The Irish people are benevolent and they elected me,” she said.
Atop her priority list, she said, was to reform family planning in a deeply Catholic population. “At that time, married women could not avail themselves of contraception pills unless they had cycle regulation problem,” Robinson said. “It must have been the Irish weather, but a lot of women had cycle regulation problems.” She said she got little traction with legislation in 1971. Ireland did not want to talk about sex or about family planning, and Robinson said she became a “pariah … It made me very understanding of the issues that developing countries face on reproductive health.” A decade later, she helped shepherd reproductive health legislation.
Change, she said, often takes time. “When we are encouraging governments, there’s no point on finger-pointing,” she said. Instead, she said the Council would be giving The Resolve Award next year to the country making the most progress toward universal access to reproductive health.
The council members also told personal stories about their involvement. Aspen is starting a campaign around these stories called “Why We Care.”
US Surgeon General Regina Benjamin told a story about one of her aunts. “When she was 16 she got pregnant,” said Benjamin who is from Alabama. “She got ill and what happened was that the baby died (in the womb), and she got sicker and sicker. She then got septic, and she died. Today that would have been totally prevented. It’s why prevention is so important.”
Dr. Frederick T. Sai, the former president of International Planned Parenthood, a Council member and a renowned expert on family planning and population issues, said much more needed to be done in preventing deaths of pregnant woman and newborns in Africa. He said he was not as patient anymore with leaders, especially those in Africa. Sai is from Ghana.
“Africa is not changing, or the change happening in Africa is relatively slow, and yet I am recognized for the work I am doing,” said Sai, whose work on reproductive health dates a half-century. “It makes one feel ashamed. Maybe this is why the good Lord is keeping me alive, so I can see a little more results. In Africa, we are (not moving fast) when it comes to women’s birth, or children dying from preventable diseases. Why are African leaders not moving with the times and not pushing as hard as they can?”