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Post from Berlin

By Anika Rahman

Fifteen years ago September, at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 179 world leaders pledged that women's rights are human rights that ensure the full participation of women in society. While progress has been made, the results are far from sufficient. Of the 22 billion dollars needed from the international community in 2009 to ensure adequate family planning and maternal and newborn health services, less than half the amount is being made available.

At the September 2009 NGO Forum on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Development conference in Berlin, we  met to discuss the Programme of Action put forth 15 years ago. While there are significant shortfalls in several areas, progress has been made in others. For example, there is more equity in education today than there was 15 years ago.

However, in Cairo there was little, if any, discussion that more than one billion young people would be reaching adolescence and sexual maturity during the 20 years in which the Programme of Action would be undertaken.

It's not just an interesting demographic statistic. Women ages 15 to 19 are twice as likely to die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth as older women. Currently, 5,000 young people age 15 to 24 become infected with HIV every day – almost two million new infections each year.  

Imagine if these young women had access to reproductive health care.  They could learn about their health and rights and avoid infections, unwanted or early pregnancy, as well as pregnancy-related death and disabilities. They could pursue their dreams and help turn around the disturbing reality that every minute a woman dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth. It is estimated that ensuring access to voluntary family planning could reduce maternal deaths by 25 to 40 percent.

At the Berlin meeting, one-third of the attendees were under the age of 30 – many of them from economically developing countries – and they were serious about the need for (and their commitment to) providing youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health services. Over dinner, the first night, I spoke to a Pakistani woman in her early 20s who works with an HIV prevention program in Peshawar, a seriously politically destabilized area. That takes dedication and some bravery.

In most parts of the world, young people's access to family planning and HIV prevention programs is limited by attitudes of adults, poverty and access. Further, where there are programs, they are often not designed with young people in mind.  I'm impressed and gratified by the dedication of so many of them who were attending this conference to push for policies that change that reality.
It is time for governments around the world to increase resources for women's health and rights, including family planning and education. The dividends of our global investments will speak for themselves, when half our population is able to fully contribute to making decisions, generating ideas, participating in the workforce, and controlling their own destiny.
Anika Rahman is President of Americans for UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund