20 Years after Cairo

20 Years after Cairo

We take it for granted today that all people matter, but this was not always the case. In fact, the rights of women to earn an equitable education and pay—and to assert their reproductive and sexual freedom—were not formally recognized until the groundbreaking 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, and the Programme of Action that resulted from that conference.

The 1994 ICPD Programme of Action represented an unprecedented consensus among 179 governments that individual human rights, capabilities, and dignity throughout the life-course—including the equal rights of women and girls, and universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights—are a necessary precondition for sustainable development. The Programme set forth goals and objectives to accelerate development in the next two decades.

Twenty years later, in light of new challenges and a changing development environment, the U.N. General Assembly called for a review of progress on the 1994 Programme of Action. With the U.N. Millennium Development Goals approaching their target date of 2015, it was essential to identify whether we'd made global and regional progress in education, pay, and reproductive health and rights. What were the outstanding shortfalls of ICPD, and were we equipped to deal with the health and human rights consequences of increased urbanization and climate change?

And were things truly better for women worldwide?

As the lead U.N. author and analyst for the 20-year review of ICPD, SPH Associate Professor Rachel Snow spent the 2013-2014 academic year in New York synthesizing a vast range of research. She and her team found that, in the aggregate, achievements over the last 20 years have been remarkable—and include gains in women's equality and education, population health and life expectancy (with a 47 percent decline in maternal mortality), and the achievement of near universal access to primary education for both girls and boys. "The elaboration of human rights protection systems has been significant, if deeply uneven in focus," Snow said. And the growing participation of young women in the labor force, especially in Asia, has contributed to an estimated one billion people moving out of poverty.

But the findings are not all positive. Snow and her colleagues noted that in no country are women equal to men in political or economic power. One in three women worldwide experiences sexual and/or physical abuse, and recent U.N. data from Asia found that nearly a quarter of men surveyed said they had perpetrated rape, many without fear of consequences. While gains in women's education have been substantial, women continue to be over-represented in "vulnerable employment"—they work with lower pay and have less job security and decision-making power and fewer benefits.

Additionally, unequal wealth distribution between and within countries is a growing concern. "Eight percent of the adult population controls 80 percent of global wealth," Snow said. And while there is "impressive commitment to women, young people, and older persons" in many countries, "there are far fewer commitments that address persons with disabilities and indigenous people, or ensure that human rights protections extend to all persons."

Snow presented the ICPD Beyond 2014 review and recommendations to the U.N. General Assembly in February. In September, during a special session of the U.N. General Assembly, 90 presidents, heads of government, ministers, and high officials from around the world endorsed the Beyond 2014 review and its recommendations.