Development Report Focuses on Women

U.N.’s Anti-poverty Strategies Still Use Faulty Concepts

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NEW YORK, OCT. 15, 2005 ( Women’s issues were at the center of the report published Wednesday by the U.N. Population Fund. The UNFPA report, «The Promise of Equality: Gender Equity, Reproductive Health and the Millennium Development Goals,» urges greater attention to fulfilling the development goals set at the 2000 Millennium Summit.

An integral part of reducing poverty, the report argues, depends on devoting greater economic resources to women and girls. Referring to the 2015 deadline for fulfilling the Millennium Development Goals, the UNFPA affirms that «gender discrimination» hampers economic development and that its elimination would greatly help the attainment of the goals.

Apart from the question of economic development, the report deals with a number of other themes related to women, such as discrimination, violence, and problems that arise during humanitarian crises. In the area of education the report points out the shortfall in providing education for girls. It also laments the lack of economic rights for women. The report draws attention to the high number of deaths among women due to complications arising in pregnancy and childbirth.

The report also returns to some of the favorite topics of the UNFPA, such as the distribution of more contraceptives. In its press release announcing the report, the U.N. agency argued that poverty is «intimately associated» with a lack of access to family planning and «reproductive health.»

Questionable terms

Many of the points raised in the report deal with valid concerns. But some of the report’s underlying conceptions and orientations reveal flaws. Take the report’s vocabulary, and what it implies. The Italian daily Catholic newspaper Avvenire observed that the use of terms such as «family planning» and «reproductive health» have been the object of widespread criticisms in past years. In its Thursday edition, Avvenire noted that the UNFPA has been accused of complicity in the Chinese government’s family planning programs, often characterized for their lack of respect for women and the imposition of forced-abortion.

An entire chapter of the UNFPA report deals with the theme of «reproductive health.» The term has often been criticized by representatives of the Holy See at U.N. meetings, most recently during the 60th anniversary session of the General Assembly held in mid-September [see ZENIT’s Oct. 1 analysis].

Prior to the 1994 U.N. conference on population and development, held in Cairo, the Pontifical Council for the Family issued a document titled «Ethical and Pastoral Dimensions of Population Trends.» One of the sections, No. 84, explained some of the drawbacks to the term «reproductive health.»

It is important to relate this term to what it means for women in their roles as a wife and mother, the document starts off by noting. The term camouflages the promotion of contraception and abortion, which not only suppress life, «but also have grave repercussions on women’s health, even risking their lives,» the text noted.

The term is also often associated with putting the blame on women for being a mother, denying the contribution her maternal role has for society. «A society which shows contempt for welcoming the child and human life, holds the woman in contempt,» added the Pontifical Council for the Family.


Also problematic is the way the United Nations uses the concept of «rights.» During a meeting on March 18, 1994, with then UNFPA Director Nafis Sadik, Pope John Paul II handed to her the text of a letter outlining the Vatican’s position on population issues.

Formulating those issues in terms of «sexual and reproductive rights,» or «women’s rights,» he commented, is the wrong approach. The Pontiff stressed that his objection did not «reduce the importance of securing justice and equity for women.»

And instead of just concentrating on a series of economic goals and «gender equality,» development programs «must be built on justice and equality, enabling people to live in dignity, harmony and peace,» the letter said.

John Paul II insisted that these programs must respect the cultural heritage of peoples and nations, as well as the qualities and virtues of individuals. Moreover, the letter stressed the importance of respecting each individual’s freedom, as opposed to the imposition of family planning programs. Treating men and women «as mere objects in some scheme or plan,» the letter stated, «would be to stifle that capacity for freedom and responsibility which is fundamental to the good of the human person.»

The letter also drew attention to the importance of defending women and children. The latter, John Paul II wrote, «must not be treated as a burden or inconvenience, but should be cherished as bearers of hope and signs of promise for the future.»

The head of the Holy See’s delegation to the 1994 Cairo conference, Archbishop Renato Martino, in his speech that Sept. 7 also dealt with the Church’s concern for women’s welfare.

He noted that at the previous U.N. conference on population issues, held in Mexico City in 1984, the Holy See had underlined the importance of considering women’s health and education as priorities. He also noted that both in rich and poor countries the Catholic Church had long provide education and health services, especially for women and children.

Not just equality

The question of how to achieve equality for women is another area where the Vatican has found fault with U.N. strategies. Prior to the 1995 U.N. meeting on women, in Beijing, John Paul II sent a letter to the secretary-general of the conference, Gertrude Mongella.

Equality of dignity, he pointed out, does not mean «sameness with men.» Sameness would only «impoverish women and all society, by deforming them or losing the unique richness and the inherent value of femininity,» the Holy Father stated.

The Church’s view, John Paul II explained, sees men and women as living in communion with each other, «with reciprocal knowledge and giving of self, acting together with the complementary characteristics of that which is feminine and masculine.»

The head of the Holy See’s delegation to the Beijing conference, Mary Ann Glendon, also dealt with this theme in her address on Sept. 5, 1995. A full decade ahead of this week’s UNFPA report, Glendon was pointing out that recognition of the fundamental dignity and rights of women would liberate «enormous reserves of intelligence and energy.»

She also stressed the importance of not separating efforts to affirm the dignity and rights of women from other fundamental commitments such as the family and marriage. Glendon added that the fear of reinforcing certain stereotypes about motherhood should not impede the United Nations from addressing the needs and values of women who dedicate themselves to this task.

Meeting the 2015 Millennium Development Goals is not just a question of fulfilling economic targets. It’s about underlying values and visions that the Holy See has been focusing on for years.

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