Sudden Death of Chief Overshadows UNFPA Executive Board Meeting

By | June 8, 2017
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NEW YORK, June 9 (C-Fam) Just as nations convened on Monday to discuss the UN Population Fund’s new strategic plan, news broke that the agency’s executive director had died suddenly the night before. National representatives hastily revised their critiques to include tributes and condolences.

Babatunde Osotimehin, a medical doctor and father of five, was formerly health minister of his native Nigeria.  According to a UNFPA press release, his vision for the agency involved meeting three major goals: zero preventable maternal deaths, the elimination of all “unmet need” for family planning, and the end of harmful practices against women and girls, such as female genital mutilation and child marriage.

After a one-day delay, the UNFPA annual executive board meeting began Tuesday, with national and regional statements commenting on Osotimehin’s death and the new strategic plan that included his three priority areas.

Compared with some previous board meetings, pressure for UNFPA to promote abortion and “sexual rights” were somewhat muted. Sweden’s written statement called for further analysis of “protection of LGBTQI-community rights” and “UNFPA’s efforts to improve access to safe abortion and post-abortion care” in line with international agreements.

The Swedish deputy ambassador omitted these parts from her written statement, however, saying instead that her country “welcomes UNFPA’s engagement with the ‘She Decides’ campaign,” which was launched by the Netherlands to counteract the U.S. policy blocking funds for abortion groups.

The United States briefly addressed the Trump administration’s decision to discontinue funding for UNFPA, citing the agency’s continued collaboration with the Chinese government’s family planning office, infamous for its coercive “one-child” policy.

Acting UNFPA Executive Director, Dr. Natalia Kanem, delivered a statement summarizing the agency’s work and mission.  She repeatedly stated that “sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights” are under threat, and affirmed the ‘She Decides’ campaign as an example of ‘renewed commitment’ against pushback from socially conservative forces.

Kanem estimated that “meeting all women’s needs for modern contraceptives” would cost an additional $3.5 billion over current expenditures.  However, her characterization of women with “unmet need” as wanting contraceptives and “not getting” them ignores the fact that most women described as having a “need” do not lack access and are choosing not to use contraceptives.  To entirely eliminate “unmet need” as it is defined would mean convincing millions of women to set aside their concerns about health risks and side effects from contraceptives or act contrary to their religious beliefs.

In her presentation of the new strategic plan for 2018-2022, Kanem also discussed the goal of eliminating preventable maternal deaths, giving the example of the Maldives, where the UN estimates maternal mortality has declined by 90% in the last quarter century, “the largest such drop in the world for this time period.”

Kanem did not point out that contraceptives had little to do with the drop in maternal deaths. Contraceptive prevalence in the Maldives remains relatively low – rising from 29% of married women in 1991 to 42% in 2015, well below the 63.6% global average.

Critics say the Maldives case reveals that UNFPA should stop its myopic focus on contraceptives and focus on what saved women’s lives in Maldives: ensuring skilled birth attendants and making emergency obstetric facilities available to all.  Nonetheless, UNFPA continues to measure its family planning progress in terms of “maternal deaths averted.”

UNFPA has announced that Kanem will serve as its acting director until an official replacement is appointed.