on population, reproductive health & ethics

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Associated Press, September 15, 2004

Uneven Progress on Tackling Population Issues

LONDON - Wealthy countries are falling billions of dollars short of their promises to help fund reproductive health care and improvements in the status of women around the world, the United Nations said Wednesday.

The world body's Population Fund said there has been significant but uneven progress in the past decade on those issues, which it sees as central to tackling poverty and keeping population growth in check.

The gaps between rich and poor nations remain vast, the U.N. population agency said in a halfway point report on the 20-year goals set at a landmark 1994 U.N. population and poverty conference in Cairo, Egypt.

The meeting set the target of ensuring all people have access to reproductive health care by 2015, a goal only reachable with a huge new infusion of cash, the U.N. Population Fund said.

Having children remains enormously risky for women in impoverished nations, it reported. Women in Africa are 175 times as likely to die from complications of pregnancy or childbirth as those in industrialized countries, the report said.

There are about 529,000 deaths per year from those causes, and the vast majority are in poor countries, the report said. The number has not changed significantly since 1994, but most of those deaths could be prevented if all mothers-to-be had access to decent health care, the report said.

The agency said the idea that the intertwined problems of population growth and poverty are best dealt with by improving women's rights, including their access to health care and education, had gained worldwide acceptance in the decade since it was put forth by the 1994 conference.

"The dialogue about population has changed from population control - numbers of people - to the human rights of people, women in particular," she said. "It's focused on the well-being of people, rather than on the number of people."

Nearly all the 151 poor countries surveyed by the agency now have laws or policies in place to protect the rights of women and girls, although laws on violence against women are often not enforced, the agency said.

It said 131 of the survey countries had changed national policies, laws or institutions to recognize reproductive rights.

Sixty-one percent of couples worldwide now use modern forms of contraception, up from 55 percent in 1994, the report said. But 200 million women in poor countries who don't want another child within two years are not using birth control, it found.

The agency said wealthy countries that in 1994 pledged an annual $6.1 billion toward reaching the Cairo goals on women's rights and health care are giving only half that amount.

President Bush has blocked $34 million in congressionally approved annual assistance to the agency, alleging it helped China manage programs that involved forced abortions, a charge it calls baseless.

U.N. Population Fund director Thoraya Obaid said countries in Europe and elsewhere had more than made up that money, with the Netherlands, Japan, Norway and Denmark at the top of the donors' list, but overall funding was still "woefully inadequate."

If reproductive health issues are not addressed, Obaid said at a news conference, "that means increased poverty, more death."

"This year's report is, above all, a call to mobilize the political will and resources needed to make the Cairo vision a reality," she said.

The U.N. Population Fund estimates world population at 6.4 billion people and predicts it will increase to 8.9 billion by 2050, with almost all the growth in poor countries. The 50 poorest nations are expected to triple in population to 1.7 billion people.

Obaid said sexual health is now more widely discussed in many nations, an awareness she predicted would lead to concrete progress.

"It's not a taboo anymore; it's more of an open discussion," she said. "I think this has come as a result of Cairo."

The report said many countries had begun to integrate sexual health care into primary health care facilities, a move the U.N. agency backs.

But donor countries' support for condoms and other forms of contraception has decreased over the past decade, while demand is expected to increase by 40 percent by 2015.

If more money isn't found, the number of people without access to birth control, prenatal health care and HIV/AIDS prevention is expected to grow, the report said. Currently in sub-Saharan Africa, an area devastated by AIDS, the average number of condoms per man is three a year, it said.

The report said fewer than 20 percent of those at high risk of contracting the AIDS virus have access to prevention, even though 75 percent of countries surveyed said they had a national AIDS strategy.


U.N. Population Fund,

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