The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) is celebrating 50 years of existence and empowering women around the globe to make their own decisions about when, how often, whether or not and for whom to become pregnant. The Nation, Deputy Editor EDYTH KAMABALAME engaged UNFPA Malawi Representative WON YOUNG HONG to find out progress the organisation has made thus far: Excerpts;
As UNFPA celebrates 50 years of existence, how has the journey been so far?
UNFPA has gone through different phases of metamorphosis to become one of the most credible and trusted UN organisations recognised for its sterling work in population data, sexual and reproductive health and rights, gender equality, as well as empowerment of youth. During its formative years, women and girls didn’t have much of a say in making a decision over their lives and bodies. Now, 50 years later things have changed and the world has changed. More women and girls in many parts of the world are boldly claiming their rights because they have knowledge, access to information, earn decent income and participate in decision makings.
What are some of the landmark events that you look back on that have helped UNFPA stamp its presence in the lives of people it seeks to serve?
In 1994, UNFPA organised a ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development [ICPD], which took place in Cairo. During the conference, leaders articulated a bold vision regarding the relationships between population, development and individual well-being. Its Programme of Action, adopted by 179 governments, recognised that reproductive health, as well as women’s empowerment and gender equality, are the pathway to sustainable development.
Last week, UNFPA Malawi organized a multi-stakeholder symposium on Population and Development in Lilongwe to consolidate the progress that Malawi has made towards the ICPD Programme of Action commitments, identify the existing gaps and challenges, and discuss solutions and innovations.
When was UNFPA Malawi office opened and what necessitated the opening?
UNFPA set up operations in Malawi in 1998. As a UN sexual and reproductive health agency, our role is to work in any country to make sure that every pregnancy is wanted, every child is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled. In 1998, the maternal mortality rate was 1 120/100 000 live births and UNFPA presence was very critical to support government to address the acute maternal health issues while assisting the government to shape the desirable population dynamics to realize the development vision of Malawi.
What have been some of UNFPAs achievements in Malawi?
UNFPA programmes produced significant change at national and district level to the lives of women and girls as we continue to support progress on realising their rights. At national level, UNFPA supported major changes to the legal framework and important policy advances were achieved. This saw an increase in legal protection for women and girls in Malawi, strengthened support for sexual and reproductive health and rights and an increase in commitment to ensure women and girls can access these services freely. In 2018, there was double the number of users of family planning methods with a 60 percent increase compared to 2014. The national modern contraceptive prevalence rate has also increased from 42 percent to 58 percent for married women. UNFPA is also supporting life changing surgery in fistula camps. So far, we have managed to repair more than 2 000 cases of fistula. UNFPA has also contributed to having girl friendly schools and protecting girls from harmful behaviours. Working with traditional leaders, UNFPA raised awareness of the harm caused to girls by such harmful practices, among others.
What are the unique challenges that Malawi women and girls face that UNFPA interventions are addressing?
Despite progress having been made, many women and girls in Malawi still face economic, social, institutional and other barriers that prevent them from making their own decisions about whether, when, how often and with whom to become pregnant. They still do not have access to contraceptives, girls and women still face sexual violence and suffer from harmful traditional practices including child marriages. They do not have access to affordable, high quality health services or comprehensive sexuality education. They lack the power to make decisions about their own bodies, and have to struggle individually and collectively against powerful forces, including religious forces that oppose advances towards gender equality and the respect, protection and fulfillment of girls’ and women’s human right.
To address these challenges, UNFPA is working to further gender equality and women’s empowerment and to address the causes and consequences of violence against women and girls, especially the effects on women’s sexual and reproductive health.
The ICPD25 is just around the corner. What issues is Malawi taking to this groundbreaking global forum in Kenya?
The Summit will offer an inclusive platform for a broad range of public and private sector stakeholders—Heads of State, Ministers, civil society organisation, religious as well as traditional leaders, parliamentarians, business representatives, academia and, especially Youth,—to come together around the universally applicable principle of rights and choices for all.
We expect Malawi to present feasible yet ambitious national commitments that can be measured by a set of crystal clear targets and indicators to end preventable maternal deaths, eliminate unmet need for modern contraceptives, end gender-based violence, stop harmful practices and harness demographic dividend.