‘Indian women are more empowered today ’: UNFPA executive director
On her first official visit to India for the Partners Forum on maternal, newborn and child health, Dr Natalia Kanem, executive director, United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), says putting the rights of women and girls centre stage will drive India’s growth and development trajectory. HT’s Sanchita Sharma spoke to her on various issues.
Are women more empowered today than they were 25 years ago?
Women are indeed better off, more empowered and a lot of it is because of the ideas that emanated out of International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, where 179 governments unanimously agreed that women’s rights and human rights go together. As we track the trajectory in the eve of ICPD@25, one indicator is death at childbirth. Maternal mortality has declined by at least 40% since that year.
Women in India today are much more empowered to take their own decisions about their fertility and with whom, when and how to space their children. This has resulted in a decline in total fertility rate (the average number of children a woman has in her lifetime) from 3.3 to 2.2. Low fertility is also about a woman’s ability to finish her all-important education, to perform in the workplace... these are all things that are really important. The availability of safer abortion has also reduced unsafe abortions, which has also helped prevent death at childbirth.
What is UNFPA’s report card for India on reproductive rights and family planning policy?
I would give high marks to India. In the last 20-30 years, the discussion about rights-based family services has been amplified and certain taboos that were never discussed — violence in the family, for example — have come to the fore, as have policies, such a the one that makes it clear that people must not be coerced into sterilisation or any other method of family planning. That does not mean that there’s not a lot more to be done.Take logistics systems. India is very good at getting things done — even a lunch can leave [home] and get there on time when the food’s still hot. Accessing that kind of imagination and innovation will deliver family planning services to the last mile, wherever you are. You have to give high marks to a country that has that level of aspiration, that level of knowhow and the human capacity to be able to make it work.
Families are becoming smaller but illegal sex-selective abortions continue. How can mind sets be changed?
The roots of patriarchy are very hard to dislodge and the only way to do that is to empower and giving self-worth to every 10-year-old girl. Girls should be able to finish their education to be valuable to themselves. Men are a part of the equation and we help fathers, in particular, to understand their role in preferring and protecting girls. The law is important but that is only a part of the solution.
With funding for reproductive and contraceptive services drying up under President Trump, what is your strategy going forward?
There is conservative tide in a number of countries and it does affect the attitudes and ability of UNFPA and our partners to function... It is a setback when countries withdraw funding that helps us to provide life skills for young people. It is gratifying to see others step up in the breach and we have had support of many countries that have come together, and of many coalitions like She Decides and multicountry initiatives like the European Union spotlight.
UNFPA just concluded its 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence campaign. How can we end gender- and sexual- assault against its women and girls?
It was gratifying to see the Nobel Peace prize go to Nadia Murad, it is important for the world to pay attention. We showcase gender champions who are working to fight gender-based violence in their own country. In Sri Lanka, we had young women talking about being attacked in public transport, how it made them feel, how they reacted the fact that no one came forward.
Women need the support of the community, they need the legal framework, they need the police process that understands that a violation of her human rights has to be treated as the crime that it is. It’s a giant step forward to shatter the taboo on violence and shame and trying to re-victimise a woman or a girl who’s already been harassed.
How can India prepare to for an ageing population?
If you look at the demographics, you already have 9% of the population of India over the age of 60 years. That’s a 110 million people, it’s not a small number. Trying to harness that dividend depends very much on investing in young people and girls. The fertility of the family can be a positive if the woman is educated, if she can support the kids and bring them up to the level of independence. We need strategies about pensions, universal health coverage and, in the short-term, borrowing from how countries are preparing for the ageing transition.