THE BLOG
04/26/2013 12:00 pm ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013

The Unfinished Cairo Agenda: Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health for All

Barry Iverson//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

The international community faces a historic opportunity. Nearly 20 years ago, in 1994, 179 nations committed to protect the reproductive health and rights of women and girls at the landmark UN International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Those basic rights, which include the ability to make free and informed decisions about one's body, health, relationships, marriage and childbearing, form the cornerstone of efforts to protect human dignity and promote the sustainable development of our planet.

Twenty years later, a major UN review of progress toward those commitments gives us the chance to ask, "Has life really changed for women and girls?"

The answer is decidedly mixed. And urgent action is called for.

On the positive side, a number of countries have implemented new laws and policies that provide at least partial protection for reproductive health and rights. Maternal mortality has declined in some countries that have improved access to reproductive health care. Access to information and services that can prevent and treat HIV/AIDS has also increased in various countries.

For hundreds of millions of women and girls, however, and for poor and marginalized communities, the promise of Cairo is far from fulfilled. Maternal mortality remains the leading cause of death for adolescent girls in the developing world, with the poorest and most disadvantaged women most at risk. One in nine girls in developing countries will be married before her 15th birthday. As many as seven in 10 women experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetimes. Women are injured and die every day at the hands of their husbands and partners, and legal systems often protect rather than punish their assailants.

We still live in a world where more than 200 million women lack effective access to modern contraception, and comprehensive sexuality education for young people remains rare. As a result, 20 years after Cairo, only about one in three young people in developing countries knows how to prevent HIV infection, an estimated 40 percent of pregnancies worldwide are unintended, and there are at least 20 million unsafe abortions every year.

It is time to reverse these disturbing statistics, and time for governments to match their rhetorical commitments to sexual and reproductive health and rights with action to ensure that all individuals have the information and means to decide on their sexual and reproductive lives free of violence, coercion and discrimination.

The High-Level Task Force for ICPD is an independent, global coalition of leaders with a record of service in governments, parliaments and civil society who are committed to the fulfillment of the Cairo agenda. As the UN prepares to review progress and obstacles toward achieving that agenda, a new report from this task force, "Policy Recommendations for the ICPD Beyond 2014: Sexual and Reproductive Rights and Health for All," lays out a clear plan on what countries need to deliver.

The Task Force report recommends educational, legal and policy reforms to protect sexual and reproductive rights, end violence against women and girls, criminalize sexual violence, eliminate early and forced marriage and other harmful practices against girls and guarantee equality before the law regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity. Efforts must be strengthened to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health information, services and education, especially comprehensive sexuality education for all young people. Other critical elements include emergency services for all victims of gender-based violence, the repeal of laws that punish women and girls who have undergone illegal abortion and expanded access to safe abortion.

This is a common-sense agenda designed to protect the rights, health and dignity of all people. It will reduce violence, injury and death and promote equitable social, economic and environmental development.

Unfortunately, instead of strengthening the Cairo agenda, some institutions and governments still try to characterize the basic equity espoused by this agenda as "radical," "anti-family" or contrary to religious or cultural norms. That's exactly the wrong approach. Protecting human dignity and rights, saving lives and supporting communities and economies all point in one direction: toward strengthening and deepening the commitments made in Cairo.

As former heads of state, we know that building the political will to improve women's lives is often an uphill struggle. However, we joined this effort because we believe that sexual and reproductive health and rights are fundamental freedoms for all people, and that recognizing and fulfilling those rights is critical to advancing an equitable, just and truly people-centered, sustainable world.

The upcoming UN review of progress on the Cairo agenda, and the forging of a new, post-2015 agenda and Sustainable Development Goals, presents a historic opportunity. We must use it to build on what has already been accomplished through the ICPD Programme of Action and reinvigorate national commitments to sexual and reproductive rights and health. Most importantly, those commitments must be translated into concrete benchmarks for the new global development agenda. A vision of inclusive development that is genuinely rooted in equality, dignity and social justice demands nothing less.

Tarja Halonen is the former president of Finland. Joaquim Chissano is the former president of Mozambique. They co-chair the High Level Task Force for ICPD, a group of government, civil society and private sector leaders working to ensure that sexual and reproductive rights and health are central to the global development agenda.