OTTAWA - Access to reproductive health care is a matter of life and death, said Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), today at the opening of an International Parliamentarians' Conference in Ottawa. Over 100 parliamentarians from 70 countries are meeting at the Canadian Parliament from 21-22 November to identify actions they can take to safeguard women's reproductive rights, improve access to reproductive health services (including family planning), reduce maternal mortality and prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS.
Every minute, a woman dies from a pregnancy-related cause. About 58 million women give birth each year without any medical help and 350 million women are denied access to safe and effective family planning methods.
"We cannot confront today's massive challenges of poverty, hunger, disease and environmental destruction unless we address the issues of population and reproductive health," stressed Ms. Obaid.
At the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, 179 countries decisively voiced their support for universal access to reproductive health care by the year 2015. Governments signed a Programme of Action and committed to move away from demographic targets and family planning quotas. Instead, they promised to give individuals access to information and services to allow them to decide freely on when and whether they wanted to have children. They also recognized that educating and empowering women to make decisions regarding their own fertility would improve the well-being of families and communities, help stabilize population growth and alleviate poverty.
The conference in Ottawa will give lawmakers a unique opportunity to outline actions they can take to ensure that the goals set eight years ago in Cairo are fulfilled. They will discuss how they can help to secure funding and strengthen laws, policies and services so that all women and men can enjoy the right to reproductive health.
The sexual and reproductive rights of adolescents are of particular concern to lawmakers since half the world's population today is under 25 years. Young people are becoming sexually active at an earlier age than ever before and often lack the necessary information to protect themselves against unwanted pregnancy and disease. Half of all new cases of HIV infection are among young people aged 15-24, with girls at particular risk.
"There have never before been so many young people in need of our attention," said Steven Sinding, Director-General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and keynote speaker in Ottawa. "Much of the progress made in the last 50 years of international cooperation in the field of population could be undone if we fail to deal effectively with this largest generation ever."
At the end of the Ottawa meeting, lawmakers will sign a Statement of Commitment, outlining specific actions they will take in their countries to promote reproductive health and rights and move the Cairo agenda forward.
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UNFPA is the world's largest multilateral source of assistance in the areas of reproductive health and population data collection and analysis. The Fund has provided more than US$5.6 billion to developing countries since 1969. Nearly all of UNFPA's reproductive health programmes in more than 140 countries include interventions to prevent HIV infection, with a special focus on young people and pregnant women.
The International Planned Parenthood Federation is the world's largest non-governmental organization concerned with family planning and sexual and reproductive health. The Federation works in 180 countries and provides information and services to 24 million people.