Monica Roa

(WOMENSENEWS)–World leaders have agreed on most of the content of a new United Nations plan of action to improve child health, protection and education over the next decade. But the remaining provisions are the source of a battle over sex education and reproductive rights that is likely to play out at this week’s U.N. Special Session on Children, when enactment of the plan will set priorities for U.N. agencies and should influence national policies.

The American delegation, headed by U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, opposes references to “reproductive health services” in the session’s outcome document because the phrase could be interpreted to condone abortion. The Vatican, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, and Syria are also against the terminology.

The United States also has objected to promoting comprehensive sex education for adolescents and has pushed for adding abstinence education in the final document.

In talks leading up to the session, the American delegation wanted to remove language in the session’s plan of action that would provide special rehabilitation for girls who are victims of war crimes out of concern that such rehabilitation could include contraception or abortion counseling after rapes.

Robert Wood, a spokesperson for the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, characterized the negotiations as tough. “The U.S. delegation is there to support U.S. administration policy and that is what we’re doing.”

The United States is the only country besides Somalia that has not ratified the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, which has provided the framework for the action plan that will emerge from the session. The United States has expressed concern in the past that signing the convention would supercede U.S. laws and undermine parental authority.

‘Perennially Contentious’ Issues Up for Debate Again

Marian Rivman, a spokeswoman for UNICEF, the United Nations agency for children, says reproductive rights are “perennially contentious at U.N. conferences.” But the debate at this session, which begins Wednesday and runs through Friday, differs from previous battles in that it focuses on previously recognized rights, rather than a disagreement over expansion of rights.

The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing and their respective five-year reviews recognized that young people have a right to sexual and reproductive health information, education and services. Under the Clinton administration, the United States led the way in drafting those provisions.

Despite the disagreement over sexual and reproductive rights, American delegates have agreed to several goals that go beyond those set forth at the 1990 World Summit for Children, which largely focused on medical issues such as reduction of infant-mortality rates and preventable childhood diseases. The new plan of action includes goals for protection of children from all forms of sexual exploitation, eliminating the worst forms of child labor and reduction of HIV among children and adolescents. Delegates will decide on the language covering reproductive rights and comprehensive sex education by the end of the week.

“In the beginning, we had hopes of pushing for something better. Now we’re fighting to keep things as they were,” says Monica Roa, a legal fellow at the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy. The center joined other advocacy groups to form the International Sexual and Reproductive Rights Coalition, an ad hoc group working to ensure that reproductive-health services and comprehensive sex education are included in the 10-year plan that delegates will commit to by the end of the session. The coalition sees these provisions as crucial to addressing pregnancy-related deaths among young women and HIV infection among adolescents.

Pregnancy-related deaths are the leading cause of death 15- to 19-year-old girls worldwide, according to research by UNICEF. Research by the Joint United Nations Program on AIDS indicates that every hour, 300 people under the age of 25 become infected with HIV and that in the some nations adolescent girls are infected at a rate five to six times higher than boys. In addition, every minute, 10 girls in that age group undergo an unsafe abortion, according to the World Health Organization.

“Our colleagues feel very strongly that they need the strongest, clearest language possible so they can keep pushing forward,” says Francoise Girard, a senior program officer for international policy at the International Women’s Health Coalition. The specific wording of the plan matters, she says, because it gives non-governmental organizations power to hold U.N. agencies and national governments accountable for their policies.

Margaret Greene, a senior researcher at Population Action International, agrees. “Once countries sign onto an international agreement, it provides leverage for advocacy purposes. It gives NGOs something to point to and say, ‘You agreed to this, what are you doing about it?'”

Progress Report Suggests Need for Stronger Efforts

After the 1990 World Summit for Children, more than 150 countries created national programs of action to reach the goals put forth at the summit and agreed to track their progress. The results of an international review reveal modest improvement in some areas over the past decade–and that much remains to be done.

Delegates at the 1990 summit agreed that all couples should have access to family-planning information and services. Since then, contraceptive use increased 10 percent worldwide and doubled in the least-developed nations, according to a May 2001 U.N. review. The review also indicates that the 1990s also saw modest improvements in pregnant women’s access to prenatal care and to trained attendants during childbirth.

Countries made no progress in meeting the goal of reducing maternal mortality rates. In developing countries, women still face a 1 in 48 risk of dying as a result of giving birth, according to the U.N. review. This session set a new goal for the reduction of the maternal mortality ratio by one-third over the next decade.

At the 1990 summit, countries also agreed to create national policies to support universal access to basic education, placing special emphasis on primary education for girls.

Since then, the number of children enrolled in primary education increased 2 percent worldwide and the gender gap in enrollment fell from 6 percent to 3 percent, according to the 2001 U.N. review. The review also indicated that despite these improvements, there are still 120 million children without access to basic education–a majority of which are girls.

The current session outcome document commits countries to work towards a 50 percent reduction of the number of children not enrolled in school and to attempt to eliminate all gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005.

Shauna Curphey is a freelance writer in Orlando, Florida.

For more information:

Introduction to the United Nations Special Session on Children:

International Sexual and Reproductive Rights Coalition fact sheet:
The Human Rights of Children and Their Sexual and Reproductive Health:
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):

Report of the U.N. Secretary General on the end-decade follow-up to the World Summit for Children:
(Adobe Acrobat PDF format):