Rights and dignity are the seeds of Africa's demographic harvest

October 03, 2013

Dr Babatunde Osotimehin_ARPCD

- Speech by Dr Babatunde Osotimehin to Ministerial Segment of African Regional Conference on Population and Development, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia


Excellency, Mr. Deputy Prime Minister of Ethiopia

Excellency, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Chairperson of the AUC

Carlos Lopes, the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa

Deputy Chairperson, Africa Union Commission


Distinguished Participants,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me begin by expressing appreciation to the Government and people of Ethiopia for their hospitality and leadership of this conference.

I would also like to thank the African Union Commission, and in particular, Chairperson Dlamini-Zuma, for your leadership and partnership with us and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. I am grateful to my friend Carlos Lopes and the ECA for their strong and active support in making this conference possible and also for their valuable contribution to the regional review process which has brought all of us here today.

A little over 19 years ago, on this great continent of ours, a vision was born in Cairo that sought and put people at the centre of development and that was to be as a means to realize the well-being and the dignity of every individual; to ensure sustained economic growth and to enable harmony between man and nature. That vision and its blueprint, the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development, have provided a standard for global development since 1994.

Today, we are here and have the opportunity to revisit the ICPD agenda, its successes and gaps, barriers and lessons learned, to agree to a new action going forward. At the same time, you will be contributing to a global vision of development as we reach the deadline of the Millennium Development Goals and as the global community is considering a development agenda beyond 2015. It is a auspicious time for us to contribute to that global agenda.

We have the opportunity to make history and achieve long sought after goals.  Today Africa is the fastest growing region in the world economically and in many other areas. Democratic rule is flourishing and our sons and daughters are leaders in science, research and technology. Our people, in both urban and rural areas, are innovating with information and communication technology in ways that define a world on the move. We recently celebrated in this city the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Organization of African Unity and underscored our determination to transform Africa over the next 50 years.

The link between the findings and recommendations of the ICPD beyond 2014 review and the vision of Africa’s founding fathers 50 years ago could not be clearer or more direct.

After securing the independence of our countries, our leaders recognized that, in the words of the OAU Charter, “freedom, equality, justice and dignity are essential objectives for the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples”.

They then decided unite their efforts to achieve a better life for every African.

So today, as we reflect let us ask two questions:

Have we achieved a better life for all of our people?

Is there any reason for Africa not to lead on the issues of freedom, equality, justice and dignity that our leaders half a century ago declared essential to realizing the legitimate aspirations of our peoples? We have the opportunities to do both.

Africa has made strides in governance, in educating our people, ameliorating acute poverty to some degree, reducing communicable diseases, recognizing and according to our women the equality and security they are entitled to. 

But much more needs to be done. We still need to do more, Africa lags behind all other regions. Our region faces a number of challenges:

  • challenges related to extreme poverty and income disparities, social exclusion, inequalities, and addressing the needs of two generations – our young and recognize that we look to our young we care for our elderly;
  • challenges related to the status of women and girls, and to ensuring universal access to basic health services, including sexual and reproductive health services, as well as addressing the unmet need of some 47 million women in sub-Saharan Africa for family planning;
  • challenges related to urbanization, migration, complex emergencies and conflict, the environment, food insecurity and climate change.

These challenges are all linked  and we will be well on our way to addressing them when we put people at the centre of development.

The key to breaking the cycle, and to realizing the vision of our founding fathers and of Cairo, is investment in the continent’s greatest asset – the African people, particularly our women and young people.

With 11% of the world’s population, Africa bears 24% of the global burden of disease. The region accounts for just 1% of the world’s financial resources for health and 3% of the global health work force. This results in limited and inequitable access to health services and poor health outcomes for our people, particularly the most vulnerable of us and that is where thee issues of equity and inequality come in.

450 African women and girls die every day in childbirth, accounting for more than half of all preventable maternal deaths worldwide. The region also accounts for half of all child deaths and 75% of all HIV-related deaths globally.

The ICPD beyond 2014 that we have just surveyed showed notable gaps in the attention paid by our governments to urban management and urban services, to out-of-school youth, to research and data collection and to environmental management.  The dignity and needs of older persons, people living with disabilities, and the facilitation of school completion for pregnant girls received significantly lower levels of government commitment in our region than in the others.

One key message from the review is that we must sustain the momentum on gender equality and universal access to sexual and reproductive health services and reproductive rights. It is not only the right thing to do; it is crucial for sustainable development.

The MDGs have done well in Africa as we have heard, but the ones that are most off-track globally, due predominantly to insufficient progress in our region, are those that stem from gender inequality and the low status of girls and women, such as reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights.

It is unacceptable, Ladies and Gentlemen, that in the 21st century girls are still subjected to harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation and child marriage, which violate their rights to health, physical and mental integrity, and life.

Of the 10 countries worldwide with the highest rates of child marriage, 8 of them are in Africa. Pregnancy complications remain the leading cause of death among adolescent girls aged 15 to 19 in our region. This must stop. And we can put a stop to it. Many of the countries have laws that say that tage of marriage must be 18 years and above, let us emulate them.

Tackling the gender inequalities and critical barriers that prevent women and girls from exercising their rights and empowering themselves must be at the heart of our efforts to create secure, sustainable, prosperous and resilient societies.

We know that when countries invest in girls and other young people, and in their access to education and quality education and skills development reproductive health information and services, household incomes rise, disease burdens fall, child survival improves, and individuals and their economies thrive.

The challenges of responding to the needs of Africa’s more than 50 million adolescent girls are linked to the youth bulge,that is the demographic bulge. We know that our continent is in demographic transition and there is much anticipation and excitement around the demographic bulge and its potential demographic bonus. We must, however, be strategic, innovative and forward looking if we are to harness this demographic dividend we have to educate girls, keep them  in school empower them to make choices empower them so that they can be be part of civil socieity.

Of the one billion people on the continent, over 30% are between the ages of 10 and 24. Combined, Africa’s children and youth make up over 60% of our total population, and by 2050 Africa’s young people will account for almost a quarter of all young people in the world. This burgeoning young population is our region’s challenge and its greatest opportunity. We need to empower them so that they can help Africa be at the vanguard of the world.

Fully engaged, educated, healthy and productive young people can break the cycle of poverty and strengthen their families, communities and nations.

Girls make up half of this enormous youth population.  If Africa is to take advantage of its demographic transition, as others regions have, we must invest in our daughters and in ensuring that each young person has access to functional literacy and quality health care, including sexual and reproductive health services and comprehensive sexuality education. We must reform our economic policies to create opportunities for innovation, entrepreneurship and decent employment for themselves. We must remember that the demographic dividend it is something we must work towards. effect not cause. We will not reap the harvest if we do not sow.

Let me turn now to the issue of discrimination and violence on the basis of gender, sexual orientation and sexual behaviour. 

In some countries, governments have enacted laws criminalizing either sexual orientation or some forms of consensual adult sexual behaviour. Ensuring well-being, human dignity and sustainability requires tolerance and respect for human rights.  

While respect for and promotion of human rights should be an end in itself, the way we treat each other has policy implications, including for public health. The charter of the OUN captures this when it states that equality, justice and dignity are essential to the achievement of the legitimate aspirations of the African peoples.

In the ICPD Programme of Action, our countries also declared that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights, with everyone entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, without distinction of any kind, including the right to life, liberty and security of person.

They also declared the eradication of all forms of discrimination by those declaration on grounds of sex a global priority.

By those declarations, our governments recognized that ensuring human rights, particularly the rights of women and young people, is the key to sustained social and economic development; that population is not just about counting people, but about making sure that every person counts.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the past three days your senior officials have worked hard to produce the African Common Position on Population and Development that you have before you.

In passing the UN General Assembly resolution mandating the ICPD review, your governments called for it to take into account "the need for a systematic, comprehensive and integrated approach to population and development issues". They asked that the review respond to "new challenges relevant to population and development and to the changing development environment, and reinforcing the integration of the population and development agenda in global processes related to development".

In other words, we are here, not to focus only on previously agreed language or past differences. We are here to reflect on the findings and conclusions of the ICPD regional review and to chart the way forward.

You will have done your duty if the outcome of this conference matches the vision of our founding fathers, our commitments to Africa's transformation and the expectations of every man, woman and young person on this continent.

We believe, as our leaders did in Cairo in 1994, that every human being matters.

We also believe that if we do this and do it right is should fit into the post 2015 development agenda where Africa can take the lead and move the world forward.

Recognizing the uniqueness of each individual, with respect for their rights and dignity, is key to ensuring the welfare and wellbeing of all of us.

I thank you.

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