Once-taboo topics addressed in Cairo

September 11, 1994|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Sun Staff Correspondent

CAIRO, Egypt -- Ahaf Bashir runs a family planning clinic in Faisalabad, Pakistan, a poor industrial city of 2.5 million. Nothing she has heard in a week of speeches at the global population conference will make her work easier, she says.

"It's just talk. This conference is not going to help those women."

But others disagree. They think the once-a-decade conference will set into motion slow but certain government machineries and civic projects that eventually will change the world.

"It's like growing stalactites and stalagmites," said Lionel Hurst, an ambassador from Antigua and vice-chairman of the central committee of the conference. "You can't see the changes, but one day you realize that something is there."

The "something" delegates to the conference want is a way to brake the runaway growth in world population, and to make life better for women.

Proponents say the Cairo conference will bring sharply higher funds for family planning, unleash a corps of enthusiastic female volunteers, and get government ministers to promise progress on issues they would not have even talked about before.

When the conference ends Tuesday, a majority of the 182 countries attending will approve a "program of action" that sets out goals of increasing contraception, improving health care, boosting education, and encouraging social and economic development projects.

But the 113-page document is nonbinding; the governments that approve it are free to implement as much -- or as little -- of the program as they wish.

Ironically, the part of the document that is likely to have the least practical effect is the one that has caused most of the controversy: the section on abortion.

The Vatican bitterly contested phrases throughout the document, such as "reproductive health" and "safe motherhood," that it believes subtly endorse abortion. The fight is mostly symbolic and angers many at the conference who think it distracts from bigger issues.

Organizers say the conference is remarkable not for the controversy it has generated but because 90 percent of the final plan had approval of the participating countries at the start of the conference.

"This is an amazing consensus. I think we are seeing the world viewing itself very, very differently," said Timothy Wirth, undersecretary for global affairs and chief of the U.S. delegation to the conference.

Organizers say it is an achievement that so many nations endorsed a document with such comparatively radical concepts "women's empowerment," contraception and family planning.

The value of that agreement is moral and persuasive, they say. The conference helps create a worldwide shift toward those goals, even without any legal weight.

"It's like movements: you can't say really what the genesis of a movement is, but you know everybody is generally going the same way," said Peggy Curlin, who heads an organization that trains women for leadership in 106 countries.

Mixed evidence

Evidence of the direction-setting value of such world conferences is mixed. There have been two previous international conferences on population: in 1974 in Bucharest, Romania, and 1984 in Mexico City.

Since the first, there have been significant changes. Third World countries in Bucharest howled about "contraceptive imperialism" of family planning programs; now they are clamoring for more. In 1965, only 10 percent of Third World women used birth control; now more than half do. The average number of children per couple then was 6.1; now it is less than 4.

"Population conferences have a way of focusing governments' attention on this issue," said Steven W. Sinding, a population expert at the Rockefeller Foundation and member of the U.S. delegation.

But the conferences failed by some measures. The talk at Bucharest was so polemic that other nations shied away from financing birth control programs. Progress after Mexico City was paralyzed when the Reagan administration declared that overpopulation was not a problem focused on abortion as the chief evil.

Looking at issues

Still, "a lot of countries that never looked at these issues were forced to look at what they were doing, and some of them said we have a problem here," said Stafford Mousky, who participated in both previous population conferences.

Advocates of the Cairo conference contend that it already has scored successes. Chief among them is money. In the last weeks, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the World Bank have announced boosts in aid to family planning programs.

The population conference plan calls for spending $17 billion by 2000 on family planning, a three-fold increase.

But some observers say it is unlikely that countries will really come up with that much money. And even if they did, $17 billion for a global effort is meager -- "about what we spend for chewing gum each year," said Mr. Hurst.

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