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Symposium explores impact of Cairo conference on human rights, 30 years later

symposium-explores-impact-of-cairo-conference-on-human-rights,-30-years-later
Symposium explores impact of Cairo conference on human rights, 30 years later

Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, keynote speaker at symposiumNatalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, keynote speaker at symposium

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Natalia Kanem, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, keynote speaker at symposium

May 3, 2024 – A symposium sponsored by the Department of Global Health and Population at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health recently marked the 30th anniversary of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD)—a highly influential gathering in Cairo of delegates from 179 nations that served as a significant strategic turning point for population and development programs.

Experts at the April 26th symposium highlighted how the conference altered the course of global development by emphasizing that the most effective way to manage a growing global population is the protection of individual human rights—notably women’s rights—rather than targeting statistical benchmarks through sometimes coercive methods, such as laws restricting the number of children a woman may have or sterilization campaigns targeting particular groups of women. The 1994 ICPD fundamentally shifted the global conversation around women’s rights, leading to significantly increased attention to reproductive health and gender equity.

The symposium capped Global Health Week 2024, which featured a series of talks on topics such as maternal health policymaking and global family planning. At the symposium, public health experts—including several who attended the original 1994 ICPD—discussed the progress made in the years since the Cairo conference and explored the work that remained unfinished.

After opening remarks from Andrea Baccarelli, dean of the faculty at Harvard Chan School, Natalia Kanem delivered the keynote address. Kanem, who currently serves as executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), attended the 1994 ICPD. She reflected on how the conference’s impact has improved life for millions across the world and shaped her own public health efforts.

“The ICPD marked a paradigm shift in thinking about population and development,” said Kanem. “The refrain was that population is not just numbers and statistics; it represents people. There should be a focus on the individual’s human rights—a shift toward people’s dignity and well-being, particularly the right to decide freely whether or when to have children.”

Panelists, from left: Marcia Castro, chair of Harvard Chan’s Department of Global Health and Population; Judith Bruce of The Population Council; Jacqueline Pitanguy of Citizenship, Studies, Information, Action (CEPIA); and Steven Sinding, director general emeritus of the International Planned Parenthood Federation

The symposium featured two panels. The first focused on the importance of the Cairo conference. Steven Sinding, director general emeritus at the International Planned Parenthood Federation, summed up the conference’s significance by noting that it “changed the conversation from what governments wanted to what people wanted.”

While the symposium often celebrated the 1994 ICPD’s accomplishments, Kanem and panelists were quick to emphasize that problems remain—and, in fact, that the worldview advanced by Cairo has lost ground in recent years. At the second panel, experts discussed the need to make additional progress while guarding against regression.

“In many ways, particularly in the U.S. … we’re really in a much worse position,” said Brittany Charlton, associate professor of population medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate professor in the Department of Epidemiology at Harvard Chan School. Charlton and her fellow panelists highlighted recent threats to reproductive freedom, singling out the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision—which concluded that there is no constitutional right to an abortion—as an example of how rights are being rolled back.

The panel also highlighted how the intersection between women’s rights and the rights of other at-risk populations—including LGBTQ people—were not sufficiently addressed during the 1994 ICPD, leaving opportunities for further work.

The symposium also featured an array of posters from students and postdocs, highlighting their research on a wide range of topics. Three posters were honored:

  • Improving Maternal Health in Indonesia: A Mixed-Methods Assessment of Basic Emergency Obstetric and Neonatal Care (BEmONC) Service Delivery, by Maria Cellina Wijaya, master’s candidate in global health delivery at Harvard Medical School
  • Family Planning Policies and Women’s Mental Health at Older Ages in China, by Muqi Guo, PhD candidate in population health sciences in at Harvard Chan School
  • Sustainability of the Ukraine Trauma Care Response, by Alexa Tovsen, MPH candidate in health and social behavior at Harvard Chan School

In concluding the symposium, Marcia Castro, Andelot Professor of Demography and chair of the Department of Global Health and Population, noted, “This is not the end. This is just the start…We need to recover the sense of international solidarity [that drove the 1994 ICPD]. We need to work together. So let’s get to it.”

– Jeff Sobotko

Photos: Kent Dayton

Written by Living Smarter

Living Smarter is a leading well-being lifestyle development striving for excellent user experience by providing quality information about trending supplements on the market.

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