Cairo: A Victory For Women And The World

With a moxie and finesse that Washington politicians might envy, the Vatican preempted the recent International Conference on Population & Development in Cairo, transforming abortion, a relatively minor item on the agenda, into the centerpiece of negotiations. For five days the Vatican and its allies held up other action while delegates, including Vice-President Al Gore, danced to charges that the conference plan represented a "right to abortion on demand" and Western "imperialism."

By the time delegates from more than 150 nations--minus the Vatican--endorsed on Sept. 13 a landmark plan to curb world population growth, the significance of the meeting and its blueprint for action were obscured. In the end, the Cairo meeting fused population policies with development goals to produce the most sensible population plan yet: One that depends on social and economic gains for women to rein in birth rates.

The Cairo conference is part of a series of U.N. meetings that began with the Earth Summit in 1992 and will wrap up next year with The World Summit for Social Development and then the Fourth World Conference on Women. Policy makers hope the meetings will lead to a new consensus on ways to promote development, curb population growth, protect the environment, alleviate poverty, and enhance the rights and opportunities of women and children.

THE SOFT SIDE. Increasingly, policy makers think that dealing with these "softer" issues is a key to maintaining political stability around the world. It's also important for improving social and economic welfare, especially in poor countries and those that are spurring growth through trade and market liberalization. The consequences of China's hyper economic growth--including the rapid degradation of soils, forests, and water and a huge migration to the cities--are stark reminders of the negative fallout of failing to address these concerns.

Despite their many flaws, the U.N. meetings are the only significant venue for tackling these issues. And they do have an impact. "Global forums validate norms, targets, and issues that will bear fruit over several decades," explains John W. Sewell, president of the Overseas Development Council, a research organization on development. The process catalyzes social and economic research on the issues, which then contributes to more sophisticated policy.

This certainly happened in Cairo. Despite the hoopla over abortion, the plan ratified there represents an unprecedented shift in population policy--and huge gains for women. Most important, based on recent experience in nations such as Bangladesh and Indonesia and reams of new research, delegates recognized that slowing population growth hinges on programs that educate and enhance the economic prospects of women. These approaches--in addition to ones that promote women's political rights, reduce infant mortality, and provide access to broader reproductive health services--lead women to want fewer children and make them partners in economic development.

The Cairo plan, which eventually will cost $17 billion a year--about $5.7 billion from donor nations--is already giving aid programs a facelift. Several nations pledged increases for population aid: Japan $3 billion and Germany $2 billion over the next seven years. The U.S. Congress has approved $585 million for population aid in fiscal 1995, double the 1992 figure. Countries with successful programs that combine family planning, education, and opportunities for women intend to share their expertise with nations that want help. And both the World Bank and U.S. Agency for International Development plan to launch integrated health, education, and loan programs for women.

FILLING IN GAPS. The meetings on women and the social summit will pick up where Cairo left off. The women's conference in Beijing next September is charged with drawing up policies to ensure women's equal participation in society. It will likely incorporate Cairo's goals for eliminating the education gap between girls and boys. The social summit will set measures to alleviate abject poverty, which keeps about 1 billion people undernourished and without adequate housing or health care. U.N. officials then aim to integrate all four sets of recommended actions into a single action plan. Ambitious--yes, idealistic--probably. But if these activities do nothing else, they will foster public debate over pivotal issues that all too often are ignored.

Those are the sorts of benefits that didn't make the headlines about Cairo.

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