Associated Press

May 28, 1997

By EDITH M. LEDERER Associated Press Writer

LONDON (AP) -- Despite the promises of 180 countries, millions of women are still denied the right to choose whether to have children, the U.N. Population Fund said today in its annual report.

"For many women, denial of sexual and reproductive rights is a matter of life and death," the fund's executive director, Dr. Nafis Sadik, told a news conference.

Millions of women are suffering and dying every year, mainly in developing countries in sub-Sahara Africa and south Asia, because of the "massive denial of human rights," she said.

According to the report, 585,000 women still die every year from pregnancy-related causes, the equivalent of one woman every minute, and many times that number are disabled as a result of childbirth.

"Much of this death and suffering could be averted with relatively low-cost improvements in health care systems," the report said. In addition, 350 million couples lack access to the full range of modern family planning, it said. And at least 75 million pregnancies every year are unwanted, resulting in 45 million abortions, 20 million of which are unsafe.

"The international community has agreed repeatedly that reproductive health is a right for both women and men," Sadik said. To accomplish this, she said, more money is needed "but more than anything else it requires determination."

The report calls for greater effort to achieve equality of the sexes, increased investment in education for girls and reproductive health care, and better enforcement of laws protecting women's rights.

The 1994 U.N. population conference in Cairo, attended by 180 countries, adopted a 20-year plan based on research showing that educated women with access to family planning have fewer children. It calls for improving the status of women and providing universal access to reproductive and sexual health services, including family planning.

The U.N. conference agreed to spend $17 billion a year on population programs by 2000, but today's report said the world spends less than half that on such programs.

Western donors are expected to pay one-third and developing nations two-thirds.

"I think that the developing countries are making quite a heroic effort," Sadik said. "But the industrialized countries ... are very much behind the commitments they made in Cairo."

The report said population growth is slowing down.

During 1990-95, population grew by 81 million people annually, compared with peak growth years of 1985-90, when the population grew by 87 million per year.

The world's population is 5.85 billion, the report said.

If governments work hard on implementing the Cairo agreement, Sadik said, the population could stabilize at about 8 billion.

Many developing countries have made progress.

Brazil has established a National Commission on Population and Development, the first in Latin America. And a number of countries are adopting population policies reflecting the Cairo agreements, including Botswana, Cambodia, Malaysia, Mongolia, Syria and Uganda.

In South Africa, the new constitution prohibits discrimination on grounds of sex, pregnancy or marital status and recognizes men's and women's rights to make reproductive decisions.

A new Women's Charter in Sri Lanka acknowledges women's right to control their reproductive lives, and a new social security law in Colombia recognizes women's rights to sexual and reproductive health.

But 14 countries still require a husband to approve any contraceptive services for his wife, and 60 others require a husband's permission for permanent contraceptive methods, the report said.

Many other developing countries have been hindered in implementing population programs by a shortage of funds and trained personnel, the report said.