On October 13, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released State of the World Population 2005: the Promise of Equality. The report looks at sexual and reproductive health and rights in the context of global poverty and in the framework of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), the internationally agreed upon set of priorities and bench marks for eradicating extreme poverty. Despite many gains in securing sexual and reproductive health and rights, UNFPA reports that further services must be provided and, in particular, young people's health must be addressed before the global community can reasonably expect to make significant progress on achieving the MDGs.
The Millennium Development Goals, arising out of the United Nations Millennium Summit declaration in 2000, are grounded in an overall respect for human rights—including, but not limited to, the rights to human dignity, personal security, and the freedom from want, fear, and discrimination.1 “Achieving them,” states UNFPA, “is not a matter of charity: It is both an ethical obligation and a collective responsibility. Meeting the MDGs and furthering human development requires empowering the poor, especially women, young people and marginalized populations, who are often doubly or triply disenfranchised.”2
The report provides specific examples of how reproductive health, gender equity, and sustainable development are interlinked. On the global level, there is marked disparity in the quality of reproductive health between countries world wide, with those impoverished nations and nations in conflict unable to offer adequate care for their people. Women are disproportionately affected by this absence of services and supplies. Virtually all—99 percent—of maternal deaths occur in developing countries. Access to family planning—a relatively inexpensive intervention—could avert 20-35 percent of maternal deaths, saving the lives of more than 100,000 mothers each year.3
Individuals living in poverty in poor and wealthy nations alike are far less likely to have access to life-saving education, services, and care. Poverty curtails access to reproductive health services and lack of access, in turn, leads to unintended pregnancy or health problems that derail efforts to stay in school or engage in meaningful work that can help to alleviate poverty. For example, the wealthiest women worldwide are four times more likely to use contraception than the poorest: In some countries, the rate is 12 times higher. Globally, some 201 million women lack access to effective contraceptives but many would practice family planning if given the option.4
Ensuring reproductive health—as a right unto itself and as a means of poverty eradication—begins with education. Investing in the comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education of youth sets a foundation for their on-going good health, a sense of empowerment, and responsibility as they grow into adulthood. The report illustrates how this education is needed now more than ever. For example, studies conducted in Burkina Faso , Mali , and Senegal found that young women in all three countries received “confusing and frightening information about puberty and menstruation.”5 Furthermore, studies from around the globe testify to an alarming degree of misinformation and lack of knowledge about HIV/AIDS. Young women and girls in particular are lacking information, a reflection of their lower levels of access to education generally. The report warns that misconceptions about HIV/AIDS can give young people a false sense of security and lead them to underestimate the risk of infection.6 On the other hand, misinformation about condoms can undermine young people's confidence in them, making them less likely to use this important protective measure when they are sexually active.
The report calls for better quality education programming. The world's youth need programs that provide reliable information, tackle poverty, and deconstruct the harmful gender stereotypes that drive the HIV/AIDS epidemic.7 UNFPA explains, “raising girls and boys to respect each other, to aspire equally to educational and work opportunities and to expect fair treatment in relationships and marriage helps build strong families and advance development goals.”8
These same young people who are at grave risk are often providing the leadership and energy needed to build programs and policies that can best help them and their peers. According to UNFPA, in the last decade, a growing global youth movement and the AIDS epidemic have contributed to a surge in efforts to provide reproductive health education and services for young people. Hector, a 20 year old representative to the UNFPA Global Youth Partners programme from Honduras , explained, “some groups think we are too young to know. They should know we are too young to die.”9
- UNFPA State of the World Population 2005: the Promise of Equality, Gender Qquity, Reproductive Health and the Millennium Development Goals , ( New York : United Nations Population Fund, 2005), 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 41.
- Ibid., 46.
- Ibid., 52.
- UNFPA State of the World Population 2005 .
- Ibid., 46.
- Ibid., 45.