Empowering women, girls and marginalised will power African development

September 30, 2013

Opening Statement from Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA's opening statement to African Regional Conference on Population and Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Delivered by Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Deputy Executive Director, UNFPA, 30 September, 2013


Mr. Abdalla Hamdok, Deputy Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa,

Mr. Mustapha Kaloko, Commissioner for Social Affairs, African Union Commission,

Dr.Kibede Worku, Ethiopian State Minister for Health,

Representatives of Youth and Civil Society,


Distinguished delegates,

Colleagues and friends,

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is my pleasure to join you this morning for the last of the regional conferences for the review of the implementation of the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development and its follow up beyond 2014. The African conference brings us back home to the region where the vision of putting rights at the heart of development was born – nearly 20 years ago in Cairo.

The ICPD Programme of Action was a ground-breaking consensus document that put forward concrete actions and objectives through which governments and countries could achieve sustained economic growth and sustainable development, with human rights, equality, equity and dignity as the standard of human well-being but also as the indispensable conditions for progress and sustainability.

This region has come a long way since that historic event in 1994 when 179 countries agreed on the conditions for ensuring opportunity through a clear understanding of the linkages between sexual and reproductive health, quality human capital, development and economic growth.

Let me thank the Government and people of Ethiopia for their leadership in the population and development field, including remarkable achievements in bringing down maternal mortality ratios and improving lives.

I also wish to thank our partners, the Africa Union Commission (AUC) and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA) for their support and cooperation in jointly organizing this conference.

This conference presents a unique opportunity to reflect on the situation in this region; to build on your successes and the lessons learned and to position the continent to achieve its transformation agenda; to be ambitious, shape the review and the post 2015 agenda.

The ICPD beyond 2014 global survey, which was completed by  52  of 54 countries in the region, shows an overwhelming number of governments with strong commitment to the eradication of poverty; creating employment opportunities for youth; ensuring rights and access to sexual and reproductive health services, including HIV prevention for young people; eliminating mother-to-child transmission of HIV; increasing women’s access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services; and promoting environmental resource management.

Such commitments explain the dramatic reduction of maternal, infant and child mortality across the region since 1994 as well as the control of the spread of HIV in almost all countries within the region.

Your governments also showed significant commitment to improving the welfare of girls; ensuring equal access of girls to education at all levels (primary, secondary and tertiary) and ending sexual and gender-based violence. Much progress is also being made on early management of female genital mutiliation/cutting and genital fistula.

Most of your governments also expressed support – through policy development, programme implementation and budget allocation — for increasing women's participation in the formal and informal economy and increasing women's representation in political processes and public life.

The narrowing of the gender gap in education, and the increasing numbers of women in parliament and in national office, are further testimony to Africa’s remarkable progress. The leadership of Africa’s two female heads of state – President Sirleaf of Liberia and President Banda of Malawi, as well as the Chairperson of the highest continental body on global development issues – Chairperson Dlamini Zuma – attests to this progress.  

Africa’s growing civil society of NGOs, youth groups, institutions and ordinary people whose passion, decisions and sacrifices have helped to educate girls, empower young people and break the deadening weight of harmful practices have  contributed to this success.

To them and to all of you we say a huge thank you! I look forward to your presentations of outcomes of your deliberations.


Distinguished Participants,

As you know, despite the gains and tremendous progress since 1994, this region faces serious challenges. Africa continues to lag behind other regions and there remain significant inequalities in access to quality services, information and education across and within countries in Africa. Inequality, social exclusion, gender inequity, poor governance and lack of participation, insufficient research and data, as well as corruption, continue to hold back the region’s great potential and impede economic growth and sustainable development.

The weaknesses of the labour market and the fragility of social protection and health systems exacerbate insecurity and are critical issues that require serious attention.

There are also challenges in the area of urbanization, migration and climate change and these must all be addressed if the region is to achieve sustainable development.

We are pleased that African leaders and Africans themselves have committed to the transformation of Africa.

Africa’s current demographic transition is going to be crucial for Africa’s future. With an unprecedented youth bulge, how Africa deals with the transition could make or break the continent.

Despite an overall decline in fertility rates since Cairo, the rates are still too high in most countries to create the window of opportunity for a demographic dividend.  There has been a tremendous increase in the number of young people in the region – from 121 million in 1990 to 205 million in 2010, at a rate far exceeding any other region. This holds for the continent the promise of sustainable and equitable development if we address the major challenge of providing all Africa’s young people with quality health care, including sexual and reproductive health, protect reproductive rights, quality education and decent employment.

As President Nelson Mandela has said, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”  Investing in and empowering adolescents and youth is the way to success. 

Half of these young people are girls.  This means we must decidedly address the issues of Africa’s girl child – the eradication of female genital mutilation/cutting, the prohibition of early/forced marriage, all forms of sexual and gender-based violence, the achievement of gender parity in education, and we must involve all men – fathers, brothers, husbands – in the promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment.

Providing Africa’s young people with the information, knowledge and services to enable them to make informed, responsible choices about their sexuality is critical for developing quality human capital that will power Africa’s economic engine and ensure its transformation.

Today, we live in an ageing world. As a result of declining fertility and increasing life expectancy, Africa is also ageing and we must plan and prepare for these changing population trends.

The global survey shows that government commitment to issues pertaining to older persons, such as promoting employment opportunities for older workers, providing support to families caring for older people or extending or improving old age allowances, which is significantly lower in Africa than in other regions.

Africa also seems to have room to focus more on the issues of urbanization and environmental sustainability.  Urbanization creates opportunities for sustainable development and poverty reduction. Without proper policies, however, these potential advantages translate into vulnerabilities. 

We need to make Africa’s cities centres of economic, social, demographic and environmental opportunity and drivers of economic growth by taking advantage of their inherent advantage of proximity, concentration and scale to help improve lives and reduce the vulnerability of present and future generations.

Africa’s various proverbs support the common adage that “Health is Wealth”. Despite marked achievements in most of the health indicators, Africa’s people – particularly its women and children – still die of preventable causes in greater numbers than in any other region. In 2010, there were over 165,000 maternal deaths in Africa, all due to preventable causes, including unsafe abortion.

We believe that in this day and age no woman should die giving life, and we must come together to ensure that the reproductive rights of women and young persons are protected. We must invest substantially in basic health services, including the provision of skilled birth attendance, emergency obstetric care and family planning.

There are terrible consequences to a weak health system. Eighteen-year-old Sara Sukwa of Lusaka, Zambia, after labouring for two days only to deliver a dead baby, developed a fistula, a terrible dehumanizing condition that often causes the sufferer to be ostracized and abandoned. Sukwa, and others living with fistulas, are the face of the failure of health systems to care for and protect women and girls. There are over 2 million women living with this condition worldwide, the vast majority of them in Africa.

The critical shortage of trained healthcare workers in this region remains a key challenge. Many countries in Africa are successfully implementing innovative training programmes that involve task shifting and the development of various cadres of health workers. These practitioners spend fewer years in training than do medical doctors and as such are less costly to educate. They come into society equipped with basic, lifesaving medical skills and we must look to such innovations in order to bridge the demand and supply gaps in the health sector.

Almost 20 years since the nations of the world came together in Cairo to endorse the ICPD goals and objectives as a means towards achieving a better, more sustainable and equitable world, tremendous gains have been made in all aspects of health, and economic, political and social development.

But we cannot be satisfied until we end the suffering of so many in this region; we cannot be satisfied until the abject poverty and hopelessness experienced by many in the region ends; and we definitely cannot be satisfied until we have created conditions for a thriving Africa worthy of its people and their expectations.

There are no excuses; no excuse to shy away from real issues and no excuse not to be ambitious.

You have it in your power to come up with a common position on actions that would, by putting rights at the heart of development, create opportunity, enhance development, and assure each African well-being and dignity, to inspire the world and help set new agenda.

Thank you.

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