Magazine article UN Chronicle

The United Nations Population Fund. (Then and Now)

Magazine article UN Chronicle

The United Nations Population Fund. (Then and Now)

Article excerpt

"Thirty years ago, my predecessor U Thant transferred a small trust fund to the new United Nations Development Programme", said Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 1999. "A small group of donors provided a small amount of money for the new fund's operations. Such were the modest beginnings of what we know today as the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) -- one of the United Nations leading success stories of the last half-century." Today, UNFPA is active in 146 countries.

As one privileged to participate in the success story of UNFPA, which reflects an evolution, not only of the Fund and the United Nations system overall but also an increasing awareness among people, I will briefly detail a few of the most relevant highlights.

In the mid-twentieth century, population issues were shunned as a political hot potato. All the organizations hoped another organization would catch it. Fortunately, leaders such as Sweden's Ulla Lindstrom, a formidable advocate of the United Nations involvement in family planning; Alva Myrdal, former senior official in the United Nations and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization; the United Kingdom's Lord Caradon; the United States' John D. Rockefeller 3rd; Ambassador Gardener; General Draper and others, fought to bring international attention to population issues.

At that time, the population field was mainly concerned with numbers, such as setting goals and targets. Now we concern ourselves with people such as Fatima.

Fatima's dream was to educate her eight children and give them more opportunities in life than she had. At 38, she had never learned to read and write. She lived with her family in a shack in Umbaddah, Sudan. When she could no longer afford school fees, her children had to drop out of school. Fortunately, Fatima learned of a UNFPA-supported programme that helps women start small businesses. She began buying clothes from the market and reselling them, door to door. Soon Fatima was able to buy two goats and some chickens, and send her eldest daughter, Siham, back to school. Siham earned excellent grades and gained entrance into medical school in Khartoum.

Over time, Fatima was able to send the rest of her children back to school. And that was just the beginning. Through the UNFPA project, Fatima learned about reproductive health issues and family planning. She began practising family planning herself and advocating this for her neighbours. She also shared what she learned about ways to prevent HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, and lobbied against the traditional practice of female genital cutting. Now a popular leader in the community, Fatima's success story is the story of one woman learning and growing, holding onto her vision, and never giving up on her dreams.

Fatima never had an education, but still she knew its importance for her children's lives. Because they are in school, they will be more likely to delay marriage, learn to control fertility, be able to get better paying jobs, and avoid sexually transmitted infections, including HIV/AIDS. Fatima's children will help to lift themselves, their community and their nation out of poverty --thanks to their mother's dreams, supported by the practical programmes of UNFPA.

UNFPA is relatively new to the humanitarian role. We took it up in the mid-1990s because we found that in emergency situations women's special needs, including their need for reproductive health services, were almost completely neglected.

In El Salvador, where earthquakes struck in early 2001 destroying medical facilities and crippling communications, UNFPA rushed to help. The most basic supplies -- even soap -- were unavailable.

Yet, the determined UNFPA team managed to provide assistance geared to meeting the reproductive health needs of people and communities that had lost everything.

Often in these situations, it is the women who struggle most to keep their families together, find missing relatives and care for children and the elderly. …

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