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Fighting poverty

Right to life

by Franziska Baur
With maternal mortality still a massive problem in many countries, the 75 % reduction aspired by 2015 in the UN Millennium Development Goals already looks unattainable. Moreover, UNCTAD has stated that the MDGs will not be met because of the global financial crisis.

On world average, one woman dies every minute during or due to pregnancy, says Gill Greer, director-general of the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF). Poor health care is among the reasons, she points out. Maternal death rates are particularly high in Africa and South Asia.

Apart from inadequate health-care systems and other socio-economic obstacles, however, the influence of the Catholic Church also contributes to depriving pregnant women of the necessary access to advice. That is especially true of Latin America. In many countries it is against the law to terminate pregnancies prematurely. Strict anti-abortion laws, however, tend to bring about the exact opposite of what they are supposed to achieve; instead of protecting life, they endanger it.

According to the Netherlands-based organisation Women on Waves, 70,000 women a year die as a result of unsafe and illegal abortions. The high figure is due to unqualified practitioners, unhygienic treatment rooms, unsterile surgical equipment and inadequate medication. Penniless pregnant women are forced into illegality if they seek an abortion because they feel unable, for financial, physical or psychological reasons, to afford to raise a child – or, perhaps, another child.

Lack of sex education, young people’s ignorance of contraception methods and general taboos of discussing issues such as sexual development or even intercourse are further reasons why many young women and men suffer all over the world. Greer thinks matters should be different. “It would cost only five dollars a year per woman to provide effective contraception,” she told an international forum on sexual and reproductive health and rights in Berlin in September. The conference was organised by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). Looking back to the 1994 World Population Conference in Cairo, participants broadly agreed that some progress has certainly been made, but falls far short of what would be needed to achieve a 75 % reduction in maternal mortality by 2015.

Participants agreed that international awareness of issues of sexual self-determination and reproductive health remains utterly inadequate. As a BMZ ­document points out, this matter is about the observation of human rights, the promotion of non-discrimination as well as maximising people’s health.

Not only women are affected. The rights to sexual self-determination and reproductive health must apply to both sexes. Not only girls, but male adolescents as well, need to be informed about sexuality, contraception and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV/Aids. Norwell Jermin Hinds of GuyberNet, an information centre for young people in Guyana, is convinced: “We need men to drive this issue forward.”

Informing adolescents serves sustainable development as it helps to make communities healthier. Policy needs to be geared to young people’s needs. The better governments promote family planning and create access to health care, the greater the payback in terms of national development. In Berlin, Ana Christina Gonzalez, a young participant from Colombia, said: “We should not be asking what it will cost to do it; we need to ask what it will cost not to do it.”

Maternal health indeed correlates with prosperity. Women who are exhausted by too many pregnancies are too weak to work in the field or in a store. Therefore, their families have less money to live on – and less money to send children to school. And poor education typically means that children will stay trapped in a vicious circle of poverty.

Family planning is a viable approach to deal with these challenges. Where young couples make the conscious decision to have fewer children, they have less difficulty feeding them and paying for their education. This approach may look self-evident from the perspective of an industrialised society, but cultural aspects must not be ignored. In countries where the state does not provide any social security, children are the only source of financial support for parents too old to work. In such settings, fewer children also means less security in old age.

In the meantime, the global financial crisis is compounding people’s socio-economic security. According to UNCTAD, the MDGs will not be achieved for this reason.

Franziska Baur