Women empowered: the earth's last hope

Magazine: New Perspectives Quarterly (NPQ)
Issue: Fall 1994, Vol. 11, No. 4
Title: Women empowered: the earth's last hope

Author: NAFIS SADIK Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Dr. Nafis Sadik is the Secretary-General of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) which was held in Cairo September 5-15. Dr. Sadik was interviewed at the United Nations by NPQ Associate Editor Leila Conners.

NPQ | Why was the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo this September different than the previous UN meetings on population in Mexico City in 1984 and Bucharest in 1974?

SADIK | The outcome of Mexico City and Bucharest was a policy of population stabilization that targeted population goals at the national level, through governments that would try to create policy and pass laws. Goals were imposed on the individual first through international and then through national institutions. What those efforts didn't do was establish an enabling environment in which people could make the right decisions.

The 1994 Cairo conference plan of action focuses both on population and development. It broadens the scope of population policy from the narrow focus on family planning and fertility to other issues of sustainable development and empowerment of the individual-- particularly women --to make decisions.

The keystone, then, of the Cairo plan is gender equality, equity and empowerment of women. Women are half the population of the world, half the population of every country. Because women are the only ones that become pregnant and bear children, population policy must be dealt with by them. Women have always wanted to have some control over their fertility. Even if a woman wants four or five children she should be allowed to space those children, so that she will be better able to care for them.

All those represented at the Cairo meeting, save the Vatican, agreed to the final plan. It was only on abortion--the whole subject of reproductive health, women's rights and abortion is so fraught with emotional overtones--that there were different points of view; even though the document does not at all suggest legalization of abortion.

The subject of control is what mainly concerns religious leaders. Throughout history, anthropological, cultural, social and religious norms have supported fertility control. That has been used to subjugate women. Disagreement, then, is not centered so much on the need for population stabilization but on family planning and whether it should occur at the individual level or at the institutional level.

Our plan of action is saying only that the needs of women should be addressed in consultation with them, not as a prescription to them and imposed on them. Today, all women do not have the possibility to choose their roles--their roles are assigned to them to be, in a sense, service providers. To enforce the reproductive role as the only role in this day and age is mind boggling.

The Catholic religion does not accept modern methods of contraception. In other religions there is no one point of view. Some Islamic leaders do say that family planning is against Islam; but most statements from Islamic leaders have favored family planning. Traditionally, religion plays more of a role when it is linked with politics--when religious leaders have influence with government. Look at the US for example: During the Reagan Administration, religious groups were much more vocal and influential than today. With President Clinton in office, it is a different situation.

At Cairo, there was acceptance by most of the governments of the definition of sexual and reproductive health that comes from the World Health Organization. That definition states that unsafe abortion is a public health issue for women and should be at issue in every country where these deaths due to unsafe abortions are occurring. Most in Cairo were also in agreement on family planning services, adolescence, and reproductive health.

Our plan does not legalize or seek legalization of abortion. Rather it seeks to make abortion less necessary through the provision of family planning and to make medical services available to women who resort to abortion in order to prevent health consequences, including death. Reproductive health does not contain a hidden agenda to legalize abortion, that is up to every country to decide. Reproductive health means information and education about reproduction, pre- and post-natal care, assisted deliveries, family planning services and HIV/AIDS and STD (sexually transmitted disease) control and prevention.

Indeed, if we are to be successful, three conditions must exist simultaneously, and globally, to help reduce population: first, the education and empowerment of women--the ability of women to participate in the decisions about family size and in the decisions about the shape and nature of society; second, the availability of family planning services and information; and, third, the confidence by parents that their children will survive. These conditions must occur at the same time to be effective.

NPQ | Was the Cairo conference a watershed for feminism on a global scale?

SADIK | I think it was.

We will be looking at major increases of women in the economic labor force--the national labor forces. Across the North and the South, women are increasingly working outside of the home, admittedly first at the lowest paid jobs. In Asia, women are working outside the home; they are educated, they become "bread-winners" and thus gain more respect from their husbands and families. Gradually and grudgingly, there will be more and more recognition of women's work, even within the household. Things are now changing.

Alongside women's entry into the labor force, consideration should be taken that their work not simply be overloaded onto them. There should be a changing of roles--a balancing of women's roles outside of the home with the man's role inside of the home. The Nordics are very good examples of this. The role of men and women in the parenting of children is quite equal there--especially in Sweden. In Sweden, it is not unusual for the father to take leave to look after children. Helping in the household is very common. The division of responsibilities are such that sometimes the man cooks and the woman looks after the rest of the house. Sometimes it is the other way around. Such role equality is not happening in the developing world to such a great extent. Men are pushed by what is expected of them, and they don't want to be laughed at by their peers and their colleagues. The stereotyping there has to change.

NPQ | How, then, will gender equality and the changing of stereotypes be accepted on aglobal scale? Won't such change take many years?

SADIK | Changing gender roles is threatening. Men and women are afraid of how these changes are going to affect them. Will they really be able to cope with the new circumstances? Women are also worried about a new role expected of them to be independent and fend for themselves. Change is always worrisome.

But things can happen rapidly. It might not take decades, and major change could occur in a decade. If we can identify and engage key people to make changes, then change starts to happen very quickly. Core interventions should include, for example, getting girls into school and literacy programs.

NPQ | Change occurs at different speeds. North and the South are not in sync; they exist in non-parallel historical time.

At the same moment Taslima Nasrin, the persecuted Bangladeshi writer, is calling for Islamic women to have the right to bear children out of wedlock, America's liberal Health and Human Services Director Donna Shalala agreed with the culturally conservative former Vice President Dan Quayle that Murphy Brown is a bad role model. Isn't the concern of those in the countries who have gone through the breakdown of the family worth listening to?

SADIK | True, different societies live in different historical times. But Ms. Nasrin is a particular case. In some societies, like Bangladesh or Pakistan, one must be careful in the public realm so as not to generate antagonism that will derail the mission totally. One must decide what one's objective is: If the objective is to get women as quickly as possible in control of their lives, one can get to a certain level and carry a lot of people with them if they don't cross that fine line. Up to a point one's opponents can't really work against the modernization process but as soon as you get to the family and the single women being promiscuous--all that is taboo. Ms. Nasrin crossed the line and gave her opponents ammunition to attack the whole movement.

Regarding the statement by Donna Shalala that the Murphy Brown model is a bad one, all I can say is it is impossible to legislate family. I do not disagree that there should be a father, mother and children, but how do you make them stay together?

Women in fact don't leave their children and walk out; men do. Women keep their children. Most societies have condoned men having multiple sexual relationships. Societies don't frown on a man having mistresses, regardless of upholding marriage as sacred. In my part of the world, it is considered a great achievement to have many women. It is power over women and confirms the low status of women. You can have them, you can own them.

So it is the same all over the world; fathers abandon their families and go off. In some cases, there is the extended family, but even the extended family is now under economic pressure and is gradually breaking down so that they too are unwilling to support additional family members. The nuclear family in the end is abandoned when the father, the bread- winner, walks out. Restricting women from having children out of wedlock could preclude arranged marriages in order to avoid preventing them from fulfilling their biological roles.

NPQ | The Vatican and some Islamic scholars would argue that America's key societal problem is the breakdown of the integrity of the family in large part due to the rise of the feminist sensibility. Is their worry justified?

SADIK | Feminism is not the cause of the breakdown of the family; the breakdown of the family is due to men having remained in their traditional roles. Men have not changed. Men must now take responsibility and change their roles. The roles of both genders must change. The woman should not be expected to take on double, triple loads; she must not be induced to sacrifice her professional career in order to look after the family because, after all, it is her job alone. Fathering is also a job as much as mothering is a job. Both parents should share the responsibilities of parenting and the household work. If you have a proper relationship, that is what you will share.

If the status quo in fact was such that everybody was equal and women and men were allowed to select their own roles, there would be no feminist movement.

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