Putting women at the center
BALI—To the sound of rhythmic gongs and brass percussion, the fourth International Conference on Family Planning (ICFP) opened yesterday at the Bali Nusa Dua Conference Center. The conference, postponed last November after a volcano eruption in a nearby island covered the airport in ash, finally pushed through with what its organizers hoped would be a “volcanic” eruption of international support for family planning.
The opening ceremony was graced by no less than Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who was accompanied by his wife Iriana, herself active in women’s groups. In his keynote address, Jokowi noted that Indonesia, long acknowledged as a “success story” in the world for its successful family planning program, has had to “revitalize” the program in recent years.
Part of this revitalizing strategy was to bring the program down to the “village level,” encouraging local governments to raise awareness of the need to persist in convincing Indonesians to have smaller families, Jokowi said.
He said that on the global level, he wished that governments around the world, especially at the conference, could “discuss the main foundations necessary to build the planet that we want.” He envisioned “a future that ensure all women and girls are empowered to choose whether and when they want to have children and space their births, so that mothers and their babies have better opportunities for better lives.” His words certainly underscored the theme of this year’s ICFP: “Global Commitments, Local Actions.”
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Also addressing the delegates at the opening rites were Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin of the UN Population Fund; Dr. Christopher Elias, president of the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (a cosponsor of the ICFP) and a roster of global leaders emphasizing the urgency of meeting the goals set for populations, families and individuals.
Given for the first time at the ICFP plenary were the Global Humanitarian Awards for Women’s and Children’s Health, recognizing individuals for their “tremendous contributions and commitments to advancing maternal and child health and well-being, especially family planning in communities around the world.”
Honored were: Dato Sri Prof. Dr. Tahir of Indonesia, whose Tahir Foundation Health Fund has raised $200 million with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for health and family planning programs in Indonesia and other parts of the world; Sir Christopher Hohn, a Britain-based investment banker and cofounder of the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, with his representative Alvaro Bermejo announcing a new $30-million initiative called Adolescents 360 focusing on youth health needs in sub-Saharan Africa; and Fayeeza Naqvi and her husband Arif Masood Naqvi from Pakistan who founded the Aman Foundation which provides funding for programs targeting women and children’s health.
In a video address, Melinda Gates also announced that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was committing an additional $120 million to ensure that family planning remains “on top of the agenda” of international bodies and of national and local governments.
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Capping the opening rituals was a speech by a youth representative, Margaret Bolaji, a health researcher from Northern Nigeria whose submitted video was selected out of 400 entries in a competition.
She certainly brought the opening ceremonies to a dramatic and moving finish, speaking eloquently of three friends, all young women, who embodied for her the dreams—and frustrations—of young people confronting changes in their lives. One of them was a girl she called “Maria,” with whom she grew up in the same village, but whose fate contrasted sharply with hers, after being forced by her family to leave school and marry a much older man. By age 18, Maria already had three children, with her health compromised by too many pregnancies that came too close together. And worse, her husband then died in a road accident, leaving the young woman and her children with a bleak future.
Another friend, “Zaina,” she met at a fistula center after the girl had become pregnant at age 12 following her marriage to another older man at 11. Zaina died from her ailment (fistula occurs when there is a tear in the birth canal during a difficult delivery, causing massive infection) a few days after she and Margaret met. “I dedicate my presence here to Maria and Zaina,” Margaret said. “How are we going to put them in the center of the national agenda?”
But her last friend, Hajira, showed the way. Having escaped family pressure to enter an early marriage by winning a scholarship to high school, she now pursues a dream of becoming a journalist, with Margaret pointing out that Hajira’s fortunate turn shows the world the need “to make the youth a priority.”
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Finally, a shout-out to Jose “Oying” Rimon, now a director and senior scientist of the Bill and Melinda Gates Institute for Population and Reproductive Health at Johns Hopkins University.
At the opening, Oying acted as a presider, but as UNFPA’s Osetimehin noted, the afternoon’s event was also partly to “celebrate Oying.” It was Oying who had played a key role in organizing the ICFP through the years, but most especially this year’s.
When the volcano eruption last year laid to waste the ICFP 2015 (now 2016) preparations, Oying led the efforts to keep the organization together, making sure that despite the setback, the goals remained clear and the mechanisms still working. Oying has been a friend, not just to me but to the entire reproductive health community in the Philippines, to whom he has been a valued advisor and consultant. He is certainly one Filipino we can be proud of.
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