Social Development and Reproductive Health of Women in Developing Countries

By Jayasundara, Dheeshana S. | Social Development Issues: Alternative Approaches to Global Human Needs, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Social Development and Reproductive Health of Women in Developing Countries


Jayasundara, Dheeshana S., Social Development Issues: Alternative Approaches to Global Human Needs


The 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) brought about a major paradigm shift in reproductive health policy. The ICPD can be rightfully understood as the landmark historical event that changed the definition of reproductive health at an international level and subsequently sparked changes in the overall approaches toward women's reproductive health policies in developing countries. For the first time, a definition of reproductive health based on well-being was adopted at an international level. This definition views reproductive health as (United Nations, 1994) "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity in all matters relating to the reproductive system and to its functions and processes" (chap. Vila).

As a result of this definition, rhetoric on the subject has taken a different course in developing countries (Petchesky, 1995). The current rhetoric has shifted from previously focusing on pronatalist, antinatalist, and disease models to placing women at the center of the focus of reproductive well-being of societies, especially that of developing countries (Malhotra & Mehra, 1999). For the first time, the association between reproductive health and the well-being of populations, especially that of women in developing countries, is firmly grounded in international development agendas (Ravindran, 2008).

In the current discourses on reproductive health, individuals and individual families are considered central in making decisions about their own reproductive health. The concept of reproductive rights was introduced at ICPD and emphasized as a fundamental human right (Mann, 1997, 1998). In addition, the definition fully incorporates values and principles of gender equality and promotes empowerment of women to achieve equality through holistic multidimensional socioeconomic, political, and health improvements (Petchesky, 1995). The Cairo Plan of Action that followed in 1995 in Beijing further advanced and elaborated these concepts of reproductive health, reproductive rights, gender equality, and empowerment. Most important, sustainable development was adopted as the model to promote reproductive health in developing countries. Sustainable development was identified as an interdependent and mutually reinforcing mechanism between "economic development, social development and environmental protection" with the goal "to achieve higher quality of life for all people" (United Nations, 1995, sec. 36).

More recently, however, the Millennium Development Summit in 2000 emphasized poverty eradication and gender empowerment as its approach to development, thus placing emphasis on the economic aspect of development. This approach of the Millennium Development Summit has special consequences for reproductive health, for three of the eight goals identified for millennium development are directly related to reproductive health: maternal mortality, infant health, and HIV/AIDS conditions.

Scholars, however, are not in agreement as to which development components are most valuable to the betterment of reproductive health and should receive precedence. This disagreement has sparked a different kind of debate; namely, what constructs are most valuable to the betterment of the reproductive health of women in developing countries. Given the lack of consensus, Mann (1997) calls the structural determinants the "black box [of] societal factors" (p. 8). Although theoretical debates continue on the importance of different components of development for reproductive health, few scholars have attempted to test empirically the importance of different aspects of development to reproductive health.

Empirical models on reproductive health in developing countries in general include three aspects of development: political development, economic development, and social development. Four studies have looked at the association between economic development and reproductive health (Clark, 2006; Wang, 2004, 2007). …

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