ICPD: Full Circle After 20 Years?
September 2014 will mark the 20th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, Egypt.
Shortly before the 1994 Cairo meeting, I remember riding down in a New York elevator following a pre-conference meeting with a bunch of family planning NGO communicators. We had just agreed on a mutual message that women should have the right to choose when and how many children to have. This might seem “ho hum” now, but at the time it was a sea change from the traditional global “over population” argument that appeared in most of our press releases showing the global rise in population over the next 10, 20, 30 years.
At Population Reports, we had just published a report on The Environment and Population Growth: Decade for Action, and in preparation were reports on Winning the Food Race and Solutions for a Water-Short World. Fortunately for me, we had also recently published in 1992 The Reproductive Revolution: New Survey Findings, in which we stated: “A reproductive revolution is spreading across much of the developing world. Use of effective contraception has risen rapidly, and fertility has been falling. But there is still a long way to go. More than one woman in every five wants to avoid pregnancy but is not using contraception.” This reference to “unmet need” gave me a good reason to be in that elevator discussing our mutual message for women’s rights, even though I had one foot in the demographic/environment camp.
I was reminded of this division in approaches after reading the recent Lancet series on family planning, in which Jeremy Shiffman and Kathryn Quissell write in Family planning: A political issue (Viewpoint): “Among those proponents who emphasise rights, most believe that the adverse consequences of rapid population growth—if indeed there are adverse consequences—will be taken care of naturally as individuals are afforded control over their own reproduction. Tensions between these two sets of rationales and the individuals who hold them emerged most starkly in the decade surrounding the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, Egypt, when women’s rights and health groups from high income and low-income countries challenged the dominance of ecological rationales that had, until then, formed the primary basis for the creation of family planning programmes.”
Looking back over the past 18 years and forward over the next decade or so, there is no doubt in my mind that the time has more than come for women’s advocates, health advocates, environmental groups, and demographers to espouse each other’s causes. As my colleague, Elizabeth Futrell, wrote in a blog post about the Lancet series on family planning: “The series reviews an array of evidence on the toll that lack of access to family planning takes not only on maternal and child health but also on the social, economic, and environmental health of communities, nations, and the world.”
I think we had it right in our poster that we designed for the 1994 Cairo Conference titled “Family Planning Helps Everyone,” which contained the message that family planning:
- Protects women from unwanted pregnancies
- Saves children’s lives
- Helps men care for their families
- Improves family wellbeing
- Advances national development
- Preserves natural resources
For 2014, we would definitely add another line for “Saves mothers’ lives.” But after all this time, I still find myself with one foot in the global demographic/environmental camp and the other in the women’s rights camp. Let’s hope by 2014, the two camps will have fully merged and we will be in a stronger position to defend family planning and reproductive health against the political forces that will no doubt continue to try to weaken our efforts.