Women’s empowerment: a lot of work remains

Marloes Humbeeck & Fanny Lamon
28 May 2019
25 years after the International Conference on Population and Development, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has reviewed the Program of Action that was signed during this event. The UNFPA concludes that significant progress has been made since 1994. However, a lot of work remains to be done before women have complete control over their reproductive rights.

In 1994, delegates convened at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo to address concerns about population growth. As a result, 179 governments signed a Program of Action that tackles the issue in an innovative way. That is, the program does not solely focus on reaching population targets, but also takes into account people’s needs, aspirations and reproductive rights.  


Female empowerment

The Programme attributes the utmost importance to women’s rights and empowerment. A lot of progress has been made in this regard. As such, globally speaking female mutilation is now less widespread. While in 1994 about 49% of all young girls in countries where female mutilation is practiced were affected by it, this number dropped to 31% in 2019.

However, this global decline masks the significant heterogeneity between countries. For example, the rapid decline in female genital mutilation in countries such as Burkina Faso, Ghana and Kenya is not evident in Chad, the Gambia, Guinea or Nigeria.

Furthermore, research found that of the 47 countries reporting, only 53% of married women are empowered to make decisions on reproductive health and rights. This number is even lower in Central and West Africa, where only 40% can decide on these issues for themselves.

Lastly, estimates show that approximately one third of women experience some form of violence in their lives. Considering the fact that experiencing and witnessing violence is the single biggest driver of men’s use of violence against women, this is a problem that urgently needs solving.

Approximately one third of women experience some form of violence in their lives.

A woman teaching in a workshop stands next to a clipboard with the text 'how does violence affects us?' (Nicaragua).
© Tineke D'haese/Oxfam

Education and work opportunities

The conference recognized that education and work are key to enabling people to claim their rights. Although access to quality education and jobs has increased, it is still more difficult for women to attain these goals. Overall, there have been few gains since 1994 in women’s participation in the labor market, in salary differentials for equal work, in lifetime earnings and in professional leadership. Again, this varies from country to country. High-income countries, for instance, tend to display a higher level of gender parity.

The Program will continue to focus on closing the gender gap. The goal of equal education and work for will be achieved by including education throughout the life course, financial and digital inclusion for women, legal protection and greater gender balance in unpaid work.


Family planning

When it comes to population growth, there is a lot of heterogeneity between countries. As such, more than half of the population growth will occur in only nine countries. In these countries, women are not able to attain the family sizes they want.

Contraception is of course an important factor. The access to modern contraception has progressed widely since 1994. There has been a 25% increase in the contraceptive prevalence rate around the world. In least developed countries the very low use of contraception has even increased by a factor of four. Moreover, we can establish a decline in the level of unmet need for family planning, from 13.8% in 1994 to 11.5% in 2019.

However, this does not mean that the problem is solved. Population growth in 69 countries with “high priority” needs for family planning has resulted in a rise in the absolute number of women with unmet needs in these countries, from 132 million in 1994 to 143 million in 2019.

While the quality of family planning services has improved through wider access to counselling and information, shortfalls remain. It has been demonstrated that offering multiple modern methods is more efficient in meeting the diverse needs of women. Still, too many national programs continue to rely on only one or two modern methods. For instance, India continues to rely heavily on female sterilization to meet family planning needs.

There has been a 25% increase in the contraceptive prevalence rate around the world.

Sexual and reproductive health

The Conference had as a goal to achieve quality sexual and reproductive health care for all. Research, advocacy and funding over the past 25 years have yielded many improvements in this regard. However, the investments are fragmented and many shortfalls remain.

For example, a staggering 376 million new infections of chlamydia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis or syphilis are estimated to occur annually among persons between 15 and 49 years of age. Moreover, HIV continues to be a big problem. While the annual number of new HIV infections worldwide decreased from 3.4 million in 1996 to 1.8 million in 2017, 66% of all new infections are still occurring in sub-Saharan Africa.

Information exchange is of crucial importance when battling sexual diseases. Future initiatives should keep into account the fact that that young people increasingly pursue sexual and reproductive health information online. Such pursuits expose them to pornography, misinformation and risks of entrapment or trafficking.

There has been a 40% decline in preventable maternal death. This because skilled birth attendance has improved.

When it comes to natal health care, there have been some advances. As such, there has been a 40% decline in preventable maternal death. This because skilled birth attendance has improved. In sub-Saharan Africa, however, there is only a decline of 57,8 percent.

When it comes to postnatal care, improvements have to be made. After all, poor postnatal coverage has a huge impact on infant death. Among 2.6 million babies who died within the first month in 2016, 1 million died within the first day and the second million within the next six days.

The Programme is completely in line with the Sustainable Development Goals which aim to leave no one behind. Both are aimed at achieving sustainable development, while also realizing human rights of all. After all, people are at the center of concerns for sustainable development and are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature.

25th anniversary of the ICPD


The 52nd session of the Commission on Population and Development which took place in New York from April 1 to 5, 2019, celebrated the 25th anniversary of ICPD. In a common statement participating countries including Belgium reaffirmed the Programme of Action of the ICPD. Its further implementation was even considered essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. However, adequate mobilization of resources will be needed.


Furthermore the statement declares that “addressing (…) sexual and reproductive health and rights gaps and needs requires a holistic approach that encompasses the right of all individuals to make decisions about their bodies and lives, free of stigma, discrimination and coercion and to have access to essential sexual reproductive health services and information, including comprehensive sexuality education. This is not only fundamental to people’s health and survival, but it is necessary to advancing economic development and ultimately the well-being of humanity.”


In 2018 Belgium contributed € 14.1 million to UNFPA, the United Nations sexual and reproductive health agency: 9 million for general resources, 2 million for the UNFPA Supplies Fund, which provides modern contraceptive methods in the poorest countries, and more than 3 million for sexual and reproductive health and rights programmes in partner countries Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Mali, Morocco, Niger and Palestine.

Gender Sexual violence Female genital mutilation Women's rights
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