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Accelerating Rights and Choices for All in a Post-COVID-19 Asia-Pacific




9 JULY 2020

Colleagues and friends, thank you for joining us today from across several time zones, as we commemorate World Population Day, the most important day in the UNFPA calendar.

This is the very first virtual World Population Day observance UNFPA has conducted in Asia and the Pacific - reflecting the reality of the present time, in this age of COVID-19.

Indeed, the impact of COVID-19 on the work of UNFPA, the UN’s sexual and reproductive health agency, and how we can tackle this crisis in collaboration with a range of partners including our UN sister agencies, is the theme of World Population Day this year.

In the early days of the pandemic, the UN Secretary-General expressed his hope that the crisis would bring the world together, with countries working in partnership to tackle what he called the biggest global challenge since the Second World War, supported by the UN family working as one.

In the months since we have seen challenges in achieving this vision, with stigma and discrimination, racism and xenophobia, manifested in various ways - often dividing societies and countries, and hindering an effective response to COVID-19.

The pandemic has also presented significant challenges related to maternal health, family planning and gender-based violence.

We have seen huge challenges to ensure the continuity of sexual and reproductive health services in Asia-Pacific. We are also seeing changes in patterns of health seeking behaviors of pregnant women who are now fearful to leave their homes and come into contact with potentially COVID-19 positive individuals in health facilities. This change in behavior can result in increases in maternal mortality.

In some countries we are seeing stock-outs of contraceptives at central level due to problems in manufacturing and global supplies and as a result couples are deciding to utilize less effective methods of family planning, increasing the changes of unintended pregnancies.

And across the entire region, we are observing unacceptable increases in gender-based violence as a result of lockdowns and confinement in homes with abusive partners.

UNFPA’s estimates of all these damaging impacts for the next several months warn of further devastation - with lasting consequences that could stretch over the next decade.

But we have also seen examples where cross-country cooperation, complemented by support from the UN, have resulted in better outcomes.

There is no doubt that a multilateral approach to global challenges like the pandemic is the only way to go - a message that is all the more important at this time and in this year 2020, which marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations itself.

ICPD: Personal reflections

The current scenario has made me reflect outside the box on this turning point for the world and how to effectively advance the Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo adopted in 1994.

I was present at the ICPD, not long after beginning my career in development and the UN, to witness the world coming together in an effort to transform the lives of each and every person on this planet.

I remember lengthy discussions on population growth as a threat to the planet. Thankfully, the global community came together to embrace a paradigm shift on population and development.

After years of dialogue and debate between governments, academia and the civil society, 179 Member States agreed upon the landmark ICPD Programme of Action that for the very first time put individual rights and choices - with a special emphasis on sexual and reproductive health and rights - at the heart of sustainable development.

In doing so, countries moved away from an approach of population targets and numbers to policies and programmes grounded in gender equality and human rights - to ensure that every person could shape their lives for themselves, including the right to choose if and when to marry, if and when to have children, and how many and with whom.

Watching this unfold under the stewardship of UNFPA and its then Executive Director Dr. Nafis Sadik was a deeply moving experience for me. It made me determined to devote my life and career to supporting the vision of ICPD - with a focus on rights and choices for all. At the time, I didn’t fully appreciate how significant ICPD was and how it would impact views and policies in countries, but also how population issues have engaged voices from all directions.

I have been fortunate enough to have been associated with UNFPA in various capacities over the years: as a Junior Professional Officer in Zimbabwe, as Chief of Staff at UNFPA Headquarters, and now, as Regional Director in Asia-Pacific, one of the most vibrant, promising and challenging regions anywhere in the world.

Before moving on to my next point, I wish to recognize Gita Sen who is with us today. I met Gita for the first time when she was heavily engaged in a dialogue with the Swedish delegation to ICPD. I think you had just received an award from Volvo, if I am not mistaken. Since then, our paths have met several times and I thank you for the work you have made to protect the ICPD PoA over the past 25 years.

ICPD Progress and the Unfinished Business

Over 25 years since ICPD in Cairo, the world and the Asia-Pacific region have made truly significant progress towards ending maternal mortality, ending unmet need for family planning, and ending gender-based violence and harmful practices against women and girls.

These are the transformative results UNFPA seeks to achieve. But, of course, there are significant gaps that remain in getting to zero - the unfinished business of ICPD. The situation is further challenged by escalating conservatism, even extremism, around the world - jeopardising the gains made for women and girls. Added to this we have the ongoing pandemic, whose impact in just a few months has been so damaging.

But at UNFPA, and the UN as a whole, we genuinely believe that crises lead to opportunities. After all, let us not forget that the United Nations was born out of the devastation of World War Two.

The Way Forward

In Asia and the Pacific, we are working to forge a path forward out of the ongoing pandemic - to support countries in building back better by using the ICPD Programme of Action and the Sustainable Development Goals as our templates for post-COVID-19 recovery.

We have identified five work-streams going forward in this regard:

Strengthened political scanning, to be able to anticipate and strategise responses to key trends and developments even as they appear on the horizon;

Linked to that, better identification of emerging issues that may impact our mandate;

Programmatic innovation, to find better ways of working and coming up with approaches and solutions that make us truly fit for purpose;

A humanitarian think tank - recognising that humanitarian response in this, the world’s most disaster-prone region, is critical to how well we serve countries and people; and

A renewed focus on achieving UNFPA’s transformative results or the Three Zeroes.

To support these workstreams, we’re taking the following steps to accelerate the achievement of the ICPD vision in the region:

Assessing the ongoing socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic, and their implication on how countries can implement ICPD and the SDGs. 

Ensuring that everything we support countries in doing is grounded in UN principles: human rights, gender equality, non-discrimination and leaving no one behind.

Engaging with UN partners all the more strongly at the regional and country level, given that we don’t work in isolation, and that our mandates are connected. “One UN” shouldn’t be an empty phrase - but a genuine reality.

And, not least, developing specific policy recommendations for Governments to be customised and supported by our Country Offices - to ensure that millions of people truly benefit.

Friends and colleagues, as we move forward in partnership and solidarity, we must remain vigilant and uncompromising in our pursuit of human rights and gender equality. We need to hold governments accountable to their commitments to the ICPD Programme of Action, the SDGs and other international instruments to build a better post-COVID Asia-Pacific.

We need to work together for societal change - so that the lives of women and girls are valued equally with the lives of men and boys. And, we must push back against the growing trends of conservatism that threaten our collective efforts so that we get the societies governments desired in 1994 and later on articulated in the 2030 Agenda.

In conclusion, let me pledge that at this critical juncture, UNFPA is all the more determined to do all it can to achieve sexual and reproductive health and rights for all.

The four amazing speakers we have with us today embody this vision - four people from four very different countries and contexts, each of them a trailblazer through their lives and their work. Thank you all for joining us this World Population Day - and thanks for all that you do to support a better world for all.

To watch our World Population Day 2020 online virtual commemoration, with our Regional Director and four inspiring speakers, please go to: