Sensitive population issues resurface at U.N. meeting

After five years, delegates renew debate on strategy to raise status of women


UNITED NATIONS -- A consensus reached at a 180-nation conference in Cairo, Egypt, five years ago on a new strategy for limiting world population growth by improving the status of women is facing serious religious, ideological and financial difficulties.

The strategy would allow the world's population to rise from its present level of about 5.9 billion people to close to 9.8 billion by the year 2050, and then hold it at around that level.

But a review conference convened here at the end of last month to see what progress countries were making toward the Cairo goals broke up with barely half its work completed.

Instead of comparing experiences with the Cairo program, the 180 governments represented spent days wrangling over such sensitive issues as abortion, contraception, sex education for teen-agers and women's rights, to the frustration of the more than 700 private organizations interested in population and women's issues attending the session.

The meeting did not even discuss money for the Cairo program. It is increasingly unclear whether the world will be able to raise spending on population policies from $10 billion a year at present to the $17 billion required under the new strategy in the year 2000, or the nearly $22 billion needed by 2015, at a time when Western aid to developing nations is falling.

"We are having a replay of the differences which surfaced at Cairo by some of the countries who feel they lost out then," acknowledged Bangladesh's representative, Anwarul Karim Chowdhury, chairman of the review conference, which will reconvene next month to complete its work.

"We are sorry to see a meeting that was supposed to take stock of how countries are implementing the Cairo program turn into an attempt to renegotiate that program," said Anika Rahman, of the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy, one of the private lobbying groups attending the talks.

Noting a "huge gap between promises and performance," June Persaud, the Guyanese delegate who spoke for the Group of 77, as the 130 developing member countries of the United Nations call themselves, predicted the industrialized world will provide only 33 percent of the $5.7 billion it is supposed to contribute to the program by 2000.

Unlike earlier U.N. efforts to curb population growth, which emphasized numerical targets, the Cairo strategy assumes that women will automatically limit the size of their families as they become healthier, richer and more educated and enjoy a higher social status.

It calls for universal access to reproductive and sexual health care by 2015, as well as universal access to primary education, gender equality and sharp reductions in infant, child and maternal mortality.

"Cairo marks a shift in emphasis in population policy from targets and numbers to improving women's lives," said Rosalind P. Petchesky of the International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group. "You won't stem population growth without bettering the lot of women."

But instead of using last month's review conference to compare national experiences in carrying out the Cairo program, delegates found themselves locked in a linguistic struggle over what they should say about a number of sensitive subjects in the report they will present to a special session of the U.N. General Assembly in July.

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