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India Gears Up For The Nairobi Summit

“India does not believe that population should be managed through force or forcible measures. Yet, managing population is important for our development. We hope that people will realise the importance of family planning and think about how they can contribute towards population stabilisation on an individual level,” said Mr Ashwini Kumar Choubey, Minister of State for Health and Family Welfare.

Mr Choubey’s words reaffirmed India’s commitment to the principles laid out at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in 1994. India, which has steadily worked towards several of its ICPD commitments in the last twenty-five years, is ready to play an active role at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD@25 due to be held next month. To take stock of the country’s progress and to chart the road ahead, UNFPA convened a day-long consultation in New Delhi on October 18, 2019. The event brought together the voices of young people, members of civil society, representatives from the government and other relevant stakeholders from across the country.

The Programme of Action which emerged out of the ICPD in 1994 was drafted to ensure that governments around the world place human rights, and not numerical targets, as the nucleus of all development. It was significant then when Mr Choubey added, “India believes that women have the right to decide for themselves if they want to be mothers or not. It is important to give them information on family planning but it is ultimately their right to choose.”

Family planning programmes in India will continue to adopt a voluntary, rights-based approach. “We are not here to control or restrict birth. However, we recommend spacing for the health of the mother and the child,” said Dr SK Sikdar, Deputy Commissioner for Family Planning, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, who was also present at the event. Family planning interventions will also tailor their efforts towards ensuring clients have access to a variety of affordable modern contraceptives. “It is a national shame if a mother dies during childbirth. We will not stop till we achieve the principles of ICPD and the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are working towards ending preventable maternal deaths, for the health system to be geared to prevent gender-based violence, for quality contraception and choices in family planning methods, for youth rights, and for the elderly to have access to health services,” said Dr Sikdar.

While renewed commitments from governments, including financial ones, will be an important aspect of the summit, the perspectives of young people, civil society and academia will be equally crucial. In this respect, the consultation included a panel discussion which reviewed India’s progress and what remains to be done through the lens of law, gender, sexual and reproductive health and rights, population development and youth participation.

One of the topics the panel talked about was that of responding to India’s population projections. With population growth due to momentum being inevitable, and the country already nearing replacement fertility level, what are the challenges that need attention going forward? “India must ensure the correct services and policies are in place for socio-political issues that will emerge from imbalanced population growth and inter-state migration. It must also focus on elderly care and its demographic dividend,” said Dr PM Kulkarni, former professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University.

Gender inequality was also brought up for discussion. Should men be more involved in the fight for a gender equal society? And does the current improvement in education and employment opportunities for women increase the risk of gender-based violence? “Gender power inequality is equally bad for men and masculinity. Power inequality needs to be balanced so as to transform the nature of relationships for the good of everybody,” explained Dr Gita Sen, Director of the Ramalingaswami Centre on Equity and Social Determinants of Health, Public Health Foundation of India. Dr Ravinder Kaur, Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, added, “When certain shifts in power in the household or relationships happen due to improvement in the circumstances of women, it leads to masculine insecurity. This often leads to greater violence towards women. Educated women with a job are still at risk from violence today.” 

Looking ahead to the Nairobi Summit, Ms Ena Singh, Assistant Representative, UNFPA India, said, “Twenty-five years ago it was a different time. But how much is going to be different in Nairobi? While minds may have changed, the way that minds are changed has not changed and the way the mind thinks has not changed. What has changed radically though is the context in which today’s society functions—time, the demands on people, the way we access information. Keeping this in view, how do we have a goal and work towards it this time around?”

It was largely agreed that participation, especially from the younger generation, and collaboration between all stakeholders is what will set Nairobi apart. “It is not going to be your typical United Nations conference. It is participatory and focused on the notion of youth collaboration,” said Dr Shireen Jejeebhoy, member of the summit’s International Steering Committee. For young people, the summit includes sessions on tackling taboos, reproductive rights, realising the ICPD agenda with and for girls, teen girls’ participation and bringing men and boys into the conversation.

Ms Argentina Matavel Piccin, Representative, UNFPA India, also spoke about young people leading the process of change. “In every generation there has been a push, struggle or fight. It is the turn of this generation to take the battle for human rights forward. What world do you want to live in today and tomorrow? Our generation didn’t have social media to learn from. We can only guide this generation. The young need to devise their own strategies for social change,” she said.

But are young people today connected to the ICPD agenda? “The generation gap between us and our children has never been greater. We have to take these realities into account and make ICPD more relevant for our children,” said Ms Renata Lok-Dessallien, Resident Coordinator, United Nations India.

“Ownership cannot be given, it needs to be taken. There needs to be a change in the mindset of young people. They have to be aware of the value of human rights before they take ownership of what’s happening in their communities,” said Ms Neha Buch, CEO, Pravah. Building youth engagement through technology, social media and powerful human interest stories are some of the points that the many young people from India attending the summit are hoping to highlight in Nairobi.

With only 10 years left until the 2030 deadline of the SDGs, it is all the more imperative now to mobilise a cadre of young changemakers and recreate relationships. These ties are needed so that all stakeholders—young and old, male and female, urban and rural—can use the 21st century tools at their disposal to learn from one another, negotiate their way through differences and present the common front that is needed to move forward towards a world where no one is left behind. And that is just what Nairobi hopes to achieve.