ICPD+5: Should Canadian women be concerned?

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By Anne Rochon Ford

"What is really at stake for women is a recognition that only by addressing the totality of women's lives can women be truly free to make choices and decisions, without coercion." Karen Seabrooke of Inter Pares (Ottawa) in a CBC commentary during the 1994 Cairo conference.

Here we are. Five years after the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. This is the year Canada joins other countries at a Special Assembly of the United Nations in June to review and judge how they have done putting the hard-won Cairo Programme of Action to work at home.

Canada's score card is looking a little pale.

The Cairo Programme of Action recognized women's empowerment in all areas of their lives as a means of protecting and promoting their health. It also recognized that reproductive health is a human rights issue.

Canada not only signed this Programme of Action, but was key in negotiating the final consensus on some of the more difficult points. Unfortunately, since then, Canada and many of the other signing countries mostly from the northern hemisphere have done very little at a political level to advance that commitment.

On top of this overall lack of commitment, come serious criticisms on the focus on reproductive health that excludes the social context.

In the name of progress, technological and medical solutions are chased to solve reproductive health problems worldwide, while the causes of the problems are not addressed.

"This is the first time since the end of the cold war, indeed, since the end of the Second World War, that issues closely intertwined with matters deeply rooted in our values, religious principles, beliefs and worldly practices were tackled concurrently."
Closing Statement to the United Nations International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, by Egypt's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Amre Moussa.

Women's health activists (and others) have raised concerns internationally, showing the double standard for women from the "south" (in under-developed countries) and women from the "north" (in over-developed countries).

They point out that whenever there are discussions on population and development at an international level, the focus is on controlling the populations in the south.

Not discussed is the serious problems of over-consumption in the north.

Industrialized countries, and the United Nations Population Fund, support programs that target poor women and offer them food, money and clothing in exchange for agreeing to be sterilized or to use various birth control methods, some of questionable safety.

Fertility seems to be viewed by many population control activists as a disease that must be "cured".

In contrast, for most women in the north, fertility is viewed as sacred and vast sums of money are spent on helping these women conceive. For example, in Quebec women are offered incentives to have more children.

At the same time, within Canada and other northern countries, some groups of women Aboriginal women, women with disabilities have been subjected to population control practices like the ones southern women face.

Two days of meetings were held in Hull in early February to brief federal bureaucrats who will attend the UN Special Assembly in June, and a preparatory meeting in New York in March.

The first day of meetings was for non-governmental organizations (NGOs) working on population and women's health issues, organized by Action Canada on Population and Development, a government-funded NGO created after Cairo.

The second day was organized by the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade of the federal government.

Women's health activists from across Canada who attended these two days of meetings expressed concern that the consultation with NGOs was merely "token" and that the government has done very little in the way of follow-up to the Cairo conference 5 years ago.

Canada has no specific plan of action on how to implement the Cairo Programme of Action.

It would seem there is still quite a bit of work ahead of us.

Anne Rochon Ford is a freelance writer in Toronto and a founding member of the Canadian Women's Health Network.

For further reading on this subject:

"In the Name of Development: Exploring Population, Poverty and Development" by Rita Parikh (in collaboration with Inter Pares staff), Ottawa: Inter Pares, 1995

"Population Policies: Official Responses to Feminist Critiques" By Ines Smyth, Discussion Paper 14 of The Centre for the Study of Global Governance, London School of Economics, London UK, 1995

"A Canadian Women's Report on Canadian Policies and Practices areas of Reproduction, Population and Development" by the Canadian Women's Committee on Reproduction , Population and Development, August 1994

"The Cairo Consensus: The Right Agenda for the Right Time", by Adrienne Germain and Rachel Kyte , New York: International Women's Health Coalition, 1995

"Reproductive health A public health perspective", by Imrana Qadeer in Women's Global Network for Reproductive Rights Newsletter 64, 1998, #4.

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