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Religion and public policy: correcting the balance: a paper presented in Stockholm and Madrid, October 2002.

I AM VERY HONOURED THAT YOU invited me to address you. I should emphasise at the outset that I am speaking as an individual and from my own experience, and not on behalf of the United Nations or of UNFPA.

We are considering the role that religion and culture have played in relation to what countries and the international community need to do to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the number of people living in extreme poverty, within the next 15 years. This discussion is very important because it offers an opportunity to consider the progress we have made towards improving reproductive health and rights and moving towards gender equality.

Defeating HIV/AIDS, preventing maternal mortality and ensuring good reproductive health all contribute to the ultimate aim of defeating poverty. These goals require a common effort involving not only governments but also civil society--organisations representing people of good will, including faith-based institutions.

The United Nations process aims to generate this common effort by building consensus among its members. The process is cumbersome and inevitably slow. It is delicate, because it includes such a wide spectrum of opinions and approaches. But if all concerned participate in good faith, the results can be impressive.

I think that together with governments, civil society and individuals, we have achieved impressive results. When I joined the United Nations in 1970, population was the single most divisive social issue on the international agenda. It was so sensitive that there was barely agreement on how to discuss it, let alone take practical action. Today we have not only agreement, but also action in countries throughout the world, based on the consensus reached in Cairo at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994.

One of the cornerstones of the consensus is empowering women and improving their reproductive health, as a matter of human rights and as a contribution to development. The other is that--within the framework of universal human rights--each nation is sovereign to make and carry out its own policies. These two principles are buttressed by a third, the requirement for international action.

We have come a long way, but we are not there yet. We also have new challenges, notably HIV/AIDS prevention. The pandemic is already decimating the populations of the worst-affected countries in Africa. In Asian countries, HIV/AIDS is poised to sweep through the population. Yet in the Philippines, for example, the government has ruled out the use of government funds to pay for contraceptives, and has strongly opposed the promotion of condoms. The government justified this policy on the basis that efforts must be made to preserve "the religious and cultural values" of the Philippines.

I am certainly not opposed to preserving religious and cultural values, but I find it hard to understand how exposing people to infection and death preserves anything I would recognise as a cultural value. This kind of cultural conservatism is one of the major obstacles to progress in the battle against HIV/AIDS and to improving reproductive health and empowering women.


At the international level there has been a consensus on population since 1974, and it has grown stronger and deeper over the years. The great breakthrough at the ICPD was confirmed by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995. Countries have been pushing ahead on the basis of these understandings. I think it is important to remember this, because the controversy that has been raised at every international conference since Cairo, and the absence of reproductive health from the Millennium Development Goals, might give the opposite impression.

It is important to note that the opponents to the consensus on population have grown fewer and fewer over the years. In 1974, almost all the countries of Latin America were initially opposed to international action. In most African countries, family planning could not even be mentioned by name. Today, we can count the numbers of opponents on the fingers of one hand.

So, despite determined efforts since Cairo, the consensus on population and development remains in place. Although some national delegations have initially taken a conservative position at international conferences, the eventual outcome has been to protect the consensus language. Sometimes, as at the Earth Summit at Johannesburg, we have had to scramble to alert delegations to attempts to leave out or water down agreed language, but these attempts have always failed. The consensus on reproductive health and women's empowerment grows stronger rather than weaker through these attacks, because delegations are able to see through the tactics of the opposition, and reject them.

I believe that the noise made by the opposition at the international level is in inverse relationship to its real influence. The great strength of the Cairo and Beijing consensus is that it comes from countries themselves, from governments and from the growing power and influence of civil society, especially the women's movement. Civil society is a term that has come into common use only since the end of the Cold War, but it describes a phenomenon with deep roots in developing countries. The International Planned Parenthood Federation celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2002. Back in 1952 it brought together family planning associations in India, Sri Lanka and several other developing countries. Many countries have long-established professional women's groups and women's associations, including rural women's societies. They are the organizations that made the international consensus possible. In turn, the international discussion of gender issues has empowered these groups and given them a stronger voice.

The Cairo and Beijing consensus is far more than words on paper. It is the distillation of contributions from all of the thousands of participants in the process. Because it is drawn from all societies, the consensus expresses principles common to all societies. This inclusive and universal nature gives the consensus an irresistible moral force.


The Cairo and Beijing consensus is both a measured response to change, and an attempt to guide it in a positive direction. It presents every culture with a challenge; but the mark of a lively culture lies in its ability to cope with, adapt to and draw strength from change. Changes of many different kinds are buffeting developing countries today. Navigating them calls for leadership and guidance, but unconditional resistance is the worst of all responses.

The consensus has made it possible for countries to think about population as an essential part of the development process, not a cultural threat or a colonialist diversion. On an individual level, the consensus has opened a lot of minds to the potential for positive change. In particular, it offers women a path to empowerment and equality.

A certain kind of cultural conservative finds this very threatening. I think their reaction reflects a deep-seated fear of women, and in particular of women's fertility. Men in a number of different societies have sought to control fertility and even take it over. Couvade Syndrome, in which a man mimics his wife's birth pangs and takes the credit for producing the child, precisely describes the process, and the reason for it. Many societies continue to ignore unsafe abortion as a major health problem. This is hard to explain in a rational way, because the causes are well known and easily avoidable. However, if we factor in the irrational fear of a healthy woman in charge of her own fertility, the whole thing becomes easier to understand.

The Cairo/Beijing consensus not only offers a way for women to reach equality, but mandates it, starting with universal access to the means of voluntary fertility control. During the Cairo process and ever since then, extreme conservatives--fundamentalists really--have insisted that the real agenda was the promotion of abortion. This is a travesty--it implies for instance that UNFPA advocates family planning information and services in order to encourage promiscuity that results in unwanted pregnancy. UNFPA can then fund abortion programmes, which use coercion to achieve their aims. This is so absurd that it is hardly worth discussing--but we have to take it seriously. The people who make this argument succeeded in denying United States funding to UNFPA in 2002.

According to the ultra-conservatives, the term "reproductive health" actually means "abortion." At Cairo, they used this wilful interpretation to distort the whole discussion of reproductive health and rights. They pretended, for example, that the proposed language would mean that children as young as ten would have the right to abortion without parental consent. This is ludicrous, but it shows the devious nature of the opposition. By the World Health Organization definition, adolescence starts at ten, for very good medical reasons: children as young as ten do get pregnant. This is unfortunate, but it is a fact. Ultra-conservatives at Cairo and since took the position that unpleasant facts like this should be ignored, in the name of what they called "culture." They promoted the view that attempts to confront difficult and sensitive matters concealed the dark and dangerous designs of a group they called "western feminists." I was designated the leader of this group, along with Al Gore. Well, he's western, and I suppose I am a feminist, but you can see how far away from reality these people have gone.

This line of argument ignores the whole 20-year process leading up to Cairo, and the language of all consensus documents during that time, which explicitly protects both the sovereignty of states and the right of the individual to free choice. In fact, the language adopted by the UN at Bucharest in 1974 refers to "individuals and couples," the reference to couples being added specifically to meet the concerns of the Holy See. The process has approached delicate issues--like the rights of parents versus the rights of adolescents--by agreeing on a framework in which countries can debate and decide the issue on their own terms.

But the ultra-conservatives choose to ignore the careful consensus wording, which balances national sovereignty on the one hand and individual rights on the other. At Cairo they wilfully misrepresented the meaning and intention of the consensus language, to arouse fears and stir up opposition among conservative-minded people of different cultures. They even went so far as to circulate an unofficial Arabic translation of the draft document at Cairo, which for example, translated "sexual health" as meaning something like "sexual licence."

There is a broader agenda. Ultraconservatives who use these tactics imply that the threat is both a form of neocolonial aggression and a form of mind control, which results in women adopting alien values. The implication is that the Cairo and Beijing consensus is the social counterpart of economic globalization--and of course, that women are the enemy within every culture.

To my mind, this sort of cultural extremism has more to do with power structures, with who controls them and whether change is likely to weaken them, than with culture as such. Nothing inherent in cultural values calls for any particular form of social hierarchy. Certainly, no cultural value worth the name requires that women be exposed to infection, injury and death as part of their daily lives. If some extremists justify oppressing and exploiting women in the name of culture, then--in the name of values we all share--it is time they were stopped.


Among religious and cultural institutions, the Catholic church has a unique position at the United Nations. The League of Nations admitted the Holy See to observer status, together with nations such as Switzerland, because it had some of the distinguishing marks of a sovereign state. The Holy See has a similar status at the United Nations. In that capacity, the Holy See attends international meetings, and, because of the slow and inclusive process of consensus-building, wields an influence out of proportion to the size of its population. Unlike most small states however, the Holy See has representatives in all capitals of United Nations member states. Its diplomatic missions are well-staffed and sometimes influential.

Cultural conservatives have found a rallying point in the Holy See's position on reproductive health and rights and gender issues. They have not succeeded in overturning the consensus of Cairo and Beijing, or even denting it. But they have succeeded in creating the impression of an opposition, which has been enough to slow progress towards further integrating population, reproductive health and rights and services and gender equality into international development policy.

This is a tragedy. It is a tragedy because the church has much to contribute. The church has much to say about poverty, its causes and how to end it. The church could help the poorest countries in the world; it could help the world's poorest people to escape their poverty.

It is a tragedy because women are suffering and dying, women whose lives and health could be saved. The church could help end the scandal of half a million maternal deaths each year, including 70,000 from unsafe abortion. The church could help to put an end to all the different forms of violence against women: coerced marriage; unwanted fertility; enhanced risk of HIV/AIDS infection; violence in the home; and systematic rape in time of war.

These are the aims of the Cairo and Beijing consensus. Our goals are dear, practical and affordable. More than that, they are necessary. Most of the poorest people in the world are women. The consensus we have built over the last three decades is helping both them and their countries. When we started work, only 10-15% of women had access to family planning. Today, the figure is over 60%. That alone is a real contribution to humanity and to human values shared by all. I hope the conservatives of the world will soon realise that they have real enemies in poverty, oppression and injustice; and that they have nothing at all to fear from women.

The "See Change" Campaign

Catholics for a Free Choice partnered with the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU), and the Federacion de Planificacion Familiar de Espana (FPFE), to organize two seminars in Stockholm and Madrid respectively during October 2002. The seminars, the first of their kind in both countries, brought members of parliament and international experts together to explore the role of religion in international policy making.

The organizations used the opportunity of the seminars to reflect on the role that the Holy See plays at the United Nations and other international bodies. As members of The "See Change" Campaign--in which women's and human rights groups from more than 80 countries have issued a call for a review of the Holy See's Non-member State Permanent Observer status at the United Nations--the organizations repeated the important of re-examining role of Holy See at the United Nations.

Other speakers included: Frances Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice; Ulla Sandbaek MEP, elected by the June Movement Group for a Europe of Democracies and Diversities and a member of the European Parliament since 1989; Roberto Javier Blancarte, professor-researcher and academic coordinator of the Center for Sociological Studies at the Colegio de Mexico; Simon Kennedy, an attorney from Ireland who led a lawsuit against the Papal Nuncio in Ireland over clergy sexual abuse that questioned the legal status of the Holy See at the United Nations; Margarita Pintos de Cea-Naharro, a feminist theologian who teaches Spanish, history and ecumenical theology at the German School in Madrid--she is an invited professor at the University Carlos III, and Director of the Seminar of Feminist Theology; and Katarina Lindahl, secretary general of the Swedish Association for Sexuality Education (RFSU, Riksforbundet for Sexuell Upplysning).

NAFIS SADIK, MD, joined the UNFPA in 1971, and became director in 1987. Dr. Sadik now serves as Special Adviser to the Secretary-General of the United Nations.
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Author:Sadik, Nafis
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Dec 22, 2002
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