Every Minute, Dying for Having Sex

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By Julio Godoy

BERLIN, Sep 3 (IPS) Fifteen years after 179 nations agreed to implement a plan of action on sexual health, a woman still dies every minute because of inadequate pregnancy and birth services, according to the World Health Organisation

These alarming figures were under the spotlight at the opening of a forum on sexual and reproductive health and development in Berlin Sep. 2-4. 

More than 400 representatives of non-governmental organisations from 131 countries are attending the forum, to mark the 15th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, September 1994.

"The conference of Cairo of 1994 was a groundbreaking moment in birth and
sexual policy and family planning," Laura Villa Torres from the Mexican Youth
Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights told IPS.  "Until then, demographic policies both at the national and international level were characterised by undemocratic and sometimes even racist rules, such as forced sterilisations in determined ethnic groups."

In the new approach sexuality and family development was seen as a human right, not a matter for authoritarian state-determined objectives.

The ICPD programme called for making family planning universally available by 2015 as part of a broadened approach to sexual health and birth rights.  It also provided estimates of national resources and international assistance that will be required.

It underlined the importance of gender equality and of improving the status of women, not just as ends in themselves but as essential factors for achieving sustainable development.

But as often with human development policy programmes, the goals are far from being met.

"No doubt there has been progress, but it has been uneven and selective," Gill
Greer
of the London-based International Planned Parenthood Federation told IPS. "The right to the highest attainable standard of health, particularly sexual and reproductive health, continues to elude millions of people, especially the poor and marginalised.

"Nobody should be dying for having sex. And yet, it happens every day."

The HIV/Aids pandemic is taking hundreds of thousands of lives every year.  More than 200 million women, mostly in the less developed countries, lack access to contraceptives. Every year, some 67,000 women die from unsafe abortions; millions of others suffer injuries, illness, or disabilities.

A measure of governments' failure is the fall in funding for sexual health.  "Between 1994 and 2008, funding for reproductive health as a proportion of health aid dropped from 30 to 12 percent," says Greer.

The government of former U.S. president George W. Bush, and religious leaders especially in the Catholic Church bear prime responsibility for this.  The  Vatican's condemnation of sexual education, and Bush's conservative approach helped "political opposition to the ICPD programme to resurface, facilitating worldwide attacks against programmes for sexual and reproductive health," says Greer.

And now the financial crisis is crowding out resources for human and development programmes as money goes into rescue packages for banks and industry.

The environmental degradation caused by climate change, the global food scarcity, and consequent trends such as mass migration, are drowning calls for new efforts on sexual health.

Such an approach is wrong, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) told media representatives.  "An additional dollar invested in voluntary family planning comes back at least four times in saved expenses." The UNFPA is sponsoring the Berlin forum along with the German government.

"It would cost the world 23 billion dollars a year to stop women from having unintended pregnancies and dying in childbirth, and to save millions of newborns," Obaid said. That, she said, is what governments spend in 10 days on the military.

German minister for economic cooperation and development Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul made a "Berlin clarion call" for governments of industrialised
countries to earmark one percent of the economic emergency stimulus funds to rescue banks and industry, for development needs.

Wieczorek-Zeul criticised the stubborn application of market economy principles, when a major global crisis is questioning them. The theme for global policies, she said, must be: "It is not the market, stupid, it is the people who matter".

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