Björn Andersson, regional director of the UN Population Fund for Asia and the Pacific during an interview with The Himalayan Times. Photo: THT
Björn Andersson, regional director of the UN Population Fund for Asia and the Pacific during an interview with The Himalayan Times. Photo: THT

KATHMANDU: Björn Andersson, regional director of the United Nations Population Fund for Asia and the Pacific, said there was a need to make sexual and reproductive health and rights a priority in the development agenda in all countries everywhere, and invest in girls and women.

In an exclusive interview with The Himalayan Times in Kathmandu, the visiting UN envoy said that population and development couldn’t be discussed in vacuum as the issues should be placed together with social and economic development as well as the environment. He also highlighted that increasing investment in young people was key to ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

South-south cooperation could be a way to increase investment in the reproductive health sector in the region, Andersson said. “Such collaboration among countries in the region can help identify specific measures,” he added, “It also means genuine partnerships between governments and civil society to bring about open dialogue, find ways to work together to find common solutions, and make rights and choice a shared priority and responsibility.”

According to him, the International Conference on Population and Development is more relevant than ever. Twenty-five years ago 179 member states, including Nepal, endorsed the Programme of Action of ICPD, agreeing that sexual and reproductive health and rights are cornerstones of sustainable development.

Though ICPD is a broad programme with a special focus on reproductive health and rights, gender equality and access to quality education, it remains an unfinished agenda globally despite making a significant progress under its Programme of Action, he noted.

According to him, ICPD is key to fulfilling the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals – whose promise is to leave no one behind. While gender equality as a whole remains elusive across the world, including in the Asia Pacific region, the challenge of achieving genuine gender equality remains key to fulfilling ICPD.

According to UNFPA’s country representative Lubna Baqi, Nepal has made significant achievements since ICPD. Since ICPD, there is a dramatic decline in maternal deaths in Nepal. The country has been witnessing increasing contraceptive prevalence rates, while there are more births delivered by skilled attendants. “Most importantly, Nepal has a very progressive safe motherhood and reproductive rights act and it was one of the first acts approved by the government recognising safe motherhood and reproductive rights as fundamental human rights.”

As there are many champions at local and provincial levels, UNFPA is committed to engaging and working with its partners to empower local and provincial levels by filtering down the commitments made on safe motherhood and reproductive rights, Andersson further added.

“There are new emerging issues coming out when it comes to population development such as population ageing,” he said, adding that ensuring social care as well healthcare to elderly people and their involvement in the economic development process were the major issues to be dealt with. “We need to continue addressing the issues of gender equality and human rights to increase the access of maternal health services to everybody.”

Besides, there is a need to combine investment and political will with the outreach activities to influence a positive behavior change addressing the harmful practices and traditions insocieties, he said.

Societies are changing so are the family structure and the social fabric while gender-based violence as well as gender-based exclusion are still very high in many parts of the Asia Pacific Region, according to him. “It’s a high time we addressed these issues.” Another challenge was that making the governments realise the importance of issues sexual reproductive health and rights issues, he shared, adding that focus should be on young people by increasing investment in women and girls education.

While looking at the population and development, there are the trans-boundary issues of migration, the environment, urbanisation and also the humanitarian situations in many countries. “In this context, we need to have a conscious discussion to address the issues of reproductive health and rights.”

Lack of information, poor access to health services and lack of available contraceptives all play a role as millions of girls and women slip through the cracks, he said. “When people are empowered to make their own choices about reproduction – free of force, coercion and fear – nations prosper.”

As UNFPA has been supporting the local governments in implementing the programme activities in remote areas, Andersson said he would hold consultations with the government agencies including the National Planning Commission on the population census.

 Why ICPD is more relevant?

  • In developing regions, some 214 million women who want to avoid pregnancy are not using safe and effective family planning methods.
  • Every day, about 830 women die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. That means about 85,000 needless maternal deaths in the Asia-Pacific region – the majority of these in South Asia.
  • Weak and under-funded health systems leave women without antenatal care and safe delivery services. Unintended pregnancies push girls from school and women from the workforce.
  • Gender-based violence – an assault on women’s autonomy – and poor reproductive health push women from the public sphere while gender equality as a whole remains elusive across the world – including Asia-Pacific.
  • Since last 10 years, there has no progress made on modern contraceptive methods and 41 percent of women still have their deliveries at home without skilled attendants in Nepal. Unsafe abortion and increase of unintended pregnancies are other issues.