In the early 1990s, the world recognized the urgent need for individual empowerment, for women especially, as the sure path to sustainable development. The general consensus at the first International Conference for Population and Development was that global prosperity would only be attained if people were fully empowered economically, socially and most importantly, with regards their Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH). This was the leading outcome of this landmark conference which crafted the link between women’s empowerment and global development. The 25th anniversary of this conference was recently commemorated in Nairobi, with a theme of accelerating the promise. It is telling that both gatherings, held 25 years apart, addressed issues that bear resemblance in their persistence such as gender-based violence, limited access to SRH services, low contraception uptake, maternal mortality among others.

Three key promises were made in 1994; zero unmet need for family planning, zero maternal deaths and zero violence and harmful practices against women and girls such as FGM. While some progress has been made, there is still a way to go in achieving these ambitious and necessary targets. There have been noteworthy changes in the SRH landscape. In Uganda for example, an increase in contraception use for women from 13.4% in 1995 to 30.3% in 2016, a drop in the birth rate from 7.04 in 1994 to 5.2 births per woman in 2016, a reduction in maternal mortality from 687 per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 343 per 100,000 live births in 2015, improved access to family planning and changes in perception of SRH. The government has played a critical role in living up to this promise, last year, the national sexuality education framework was launched in schools to guide young people on SRH. NGOs and other partners have complemented these efforts with vigour through awareness-raising and provision of reproductive health supplies, however, there are still glaring gaps. In the 2000s, progress towards achieving these goals was uneven with low-income countries falling far behind on the commitments, largely due to shortfalls in funding with UN estimates placing donor funding less than half of the required amount. It is reassuring though, that progress has been documented across the wider development agenda in civic participation, changing laws and policies in SRH and improved reproductive health services.

Image source: Mariestopes International

Fast forward to the Nairobi summit, plenty of conversations were held around ending gender-based violence and upholding the right to sexual and reproductive healthcare. More than 1000 commitments were made by governments, international humanitarian bodies and individuals to this effect. Pragmatically speaking, that new commitments had to be made reflects a glitch in the process and implementation of the original Program of Action. As vocalized by Lina Abirafeh, Executive director of the Arab Institute for Women at the Lebanese American University, “how many more events do we need to have? How many times do we need to get together and talk about girls and women’s rights, when we actually just need to deliver on it?[1]

Women empowerment is a more mainstream concept now than it was 25 years ago, but for some reason, there are still hundreds of women dying from childbirth every day, 1 in 5 women experiencing intimate partner violence in and over 200 women without access to modern contraception and SRH. Moving ahead, there should be vast changes in the programming, planning and implementation of the programme of action to realize these commitments by 2030 and permanently free women from these shackles. It is going to take a lot more than commitments and declarations to reach these goals and achieve the three zeros.

Beyond the scope of the ICPD, so much has changed in the world since 1994. Most obviously, the world has undergone a technological boost and a dramatic shift in the speed and ease with which information is spread. This too offers hope that the world will, indeed, see an acceleration on the promises made 25 years ago. The beacon of hope at the Nairobi summit was the full inclusion of young people, who make up 42% of the world’s population and have proven to offer unique solutions to persistent problems by harnessing technology and globalization.