For many Americans, the troubles of women and children in poverty-stricken areas of Africa, Asia and Latin America seem too distant to interpret, too widespread to grasp and too severe to change. Images of their struggles come into our lives—in newspapers, on television and over the Internet—but the accompanying tales of war, corruption and cultural intransigence make their difficult lives seem like a fait accompli.
At the Family of Woman Film Festival in Sun Valley last weekend, scores of Wood River Valley residents and visitors had the opportunity to hear the stories behind some of the images. There were the stories of women in Pakistan whose faces had been burned in acid attacks, women in Egypt who had endured physical and sexual abuse, and women from the Eastern European nation of Moldova who had been lured into sexual slavery in Turkey and the Middle East.
The festival was presented in Sun Valley to benefit and raise awareness of the work of the United Nations Population Fund, an international development agency that promotes the rights of people everywhere to have access to health care, make their own choices and be treated with dignity. The agency—called the UNFPA for short—sent some of its top officials to the festival to discuss how the stories of the women in the films are interwoven with the work they do across the globe. The subjects aren't always pretty or easy to talk about, they said, but need not be so daunting that we are bound to inaction.
Leader speaks about mission
The statistics compiled to assess the needs of women across the globe could be discouraging. The world population is estimated to have surpassed the 7 billion mark—and could easily reach 9 billion by 2050. Every 90 seconds, a woman dies from complications of pregnancy or childbirth. About 100 to 140 million women have been subjected to female genital mutilation. Of the world's 776 million illiterate adults, two-thirds are women. Sixty percent of new AIDS infections are in young girls. And an estimated 215 million women who say they don't want another child don't have access to contraception.
However, in an interview with the Idaho Mountain Express on Sunday, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the UNFPA and under-secretary-general of the United Nations, said progress is being made. Through the UNFPA's five regional offices in Thailand, Panama, South Africa, Turkey and Egypt, he said, the UNFPA is helping governments implement programs that help women plan their families, avoid violence and gain access to healthcare.
"In most cases, the UNFPA alone cannot meet the needs, but works to create a positive policy environment and procure funding," he said. "At the end of the day, sustainability is about governments meeting the needs of their people."
Often, he said, the problems the UNFPA works to address are interconnected; making progress in one field of work might also yield positive results in another. In some regions, proper family planning could reduce maternal mortality by more than a third, he said. In Africa, maternal mortality can be linked to AIDS in some 20 percent of the cases. And, globally, he said, hunger and starvation stem more from a lack of equality than an overall lack of food.
"The distribution of food is terrible," he said.
Work in the Middle East
Sherin Saadallah, the UNFPA's regional advisor for Arab states, said the UNFPA addresses a particular set of challenges in North Africa and the Middle East.
In Egypt, she said, significant progress has been made in reducing incidences of female genital mutilation, the practice of removing all or parts of women's genitals, often as a rite of passage. Three years ago, a law was passed to criminalize the practice in hospitals. The government also backed a campaign to stop the procedures from continuing in other settings.
The organization has also encountered new challenges in the wake of the Arab Spring, the 2011 uprisings that brought change to several governments in the region.
"Our humanitarian efforts in the Arab states is extensive," she said.
Among those efforts are programs to provide humanitarian relief in areas where conflict has displaced large numbers of people into refugee camps. The UNFPA has worked with other non-governmental organizations—including other branches of the United Nations—to assist refugees from Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Syria.
"Most of them are traumatized," she said, and need psychological and social support in addition to medical and nutritional aid.
In some areas, mobile health clinics are established. Many refugees get what the organization calls "dignity kits"—which contain items for basic hygiene—and medical supplies to aid in the safe delivery of babies. People's lives are disrupted, she said, but their needs follow them to new places.
Saadallah said the Arab Spring appears to have opened some new doors for women but that organizations including the UNFPA are waiting to see how the transitions turn out—the revolutions are still young. In Tunisia, where 23 percent of the officials in the parliament are women, there is good cause for hope, she said. In other countries, the progress is slower.
What is not likely to change, however, is the fact that somewhere there will be people in need, people whose rights and dignity have been revoked in the ongoing battles for power and survival, such as those in Somalia and Darfur. For Osotimehin and Saadallah, however, that fact is not a cause for despair, but a call to action.
"There are challenges always," Saddallah said. "But we like to look more towards opportunities."
Greg Foley: firstname.lastname@example.org