A couple of weeks ago, I attended the Nairobi Summit, convened by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) with support from the Government of Denmark and others to renew commitment to the Programme of Action launched at the first International Conference on Population and Development in 1994 in Cairo.
ICPD-Cairo was about 10 years into my own career in population and development, but I wasn’t able to be there. I was working full-time, caring for a toddler, and anticipating the arrival of his soon-to-be-born brother (two planned children—a privilege that I am acutely aware of).
But back to Nairobi, 25 years later: I experienced the three-day event with mixed reactions of inspiration and cynicism, which was unsettling.
Inspiration: Progress, multi-sectoral allies, and powerful nuance
ICPD25 was inspiring in the way that large global gatherings must be (or else they’d surely stop happening)! I was inspired by the energy, commitment to shared goals, and amazing work of the 9,500 people there, representing hundreds of organizations in 170 countries.
People spoke passionately about progress since Cairo and the need to recommit to fulfilling the promises made 25 years ago. And significant progress has been made! UNFPA notes that since 1994, globally, contraceptive prevalence has increased by 25%; adolescent births have declined by 32%; and maternal death has declined by 40%. This progress represents the life’s work of many of us, but more importantly, it has been life-giving and life-changing for millions of women, girls, and families.
I was also inspired by the emerging leaders who are clearly ready to continue this labor. The wide embrace of multi-sectoral thinking was refreshing, too: we heard more than ever about education, employment, digital inclusion, resilience, human rights, faith, and climate change, and their role in sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). ICPD25 was especially rousing because old promises have been infused with new and deeper nuance about what gender justice really looks like, and about where a woman fits in creating her own story and achieving her own health.
Senior country policymakers led delegations and delivered speeches to massive audiences. They made specific public commitments, and re-endorsed a common global agenda to advance SRHR. Several heads of state attended (this is a big deal!) and spoke eloquently of their commitments, including host-country President Kenyatta, who asserted that women are “the heart of the home and the backbone of the nation.” He also committed to universal secondary education and to ending female genital mutilation within two years; both essential for girls and women to live healthy lives and thrive. Other heads of state spoke of having achieved gender equity in the lower house of parliament (go, Antigua and Barbuda!) and about their commitment to incorporating SRHR into universal health coverage and the population-health-environment nexus.
Cynicism: Where were the boos?
However, ICPD25 also awoke the cynic in me, because almost all the words had been said before, and the people who were saying them included caveats and had decidedly mixed records of moving from words to action. One example of equivocation on the promise of ICPD was the speaker who said that women, while having a right to “own their bodies,” could always use men’s help with their reproductive health decisions, and that those decisions should stay within the bounds of current cultural and religious traditions.
What surprised (and disappointed) me was that such statements weren’t met with boos from the audience. Bodily autonomy and gender equity are rights and opportunities that should be available to every woman, constrained only by how she interprets cultural norms and religious practices. How she chooses—or doesn’t—to make them her own. How she adopts or adapts them for herself. Period. I cannot believe we’re still talking about this in 2019, 25 years after ICPD.
Such equivocation left me unsettled. Do we really have the policy support we need for this agenda? Should we be more concerned about false allies? It also left me wondering about the difference between polite, work-within-the-system advocacy, and feisty burn-it-down activism, and whether the global SRHR movement has the right mix. Just something to think about.
Optimism: Keeping at it, together
I realize that feistiness may not always be the best path, but committed optimism is surely necessary in the work of gender justice and health equity. So I will give optimism the final word on ICPD25. In my estimation, the most inspiring comment came from Crown Princess Mary of Denmark, UNFPA’s patron, who said, “Real and lasting change comes from enough people seeing enough people making change and benefiting from it.” We are those people. We are enough, and the benefits are real, so we must keep making change, together!