New UNFPA Report Promotes Cultural Sensitivity to Advance “Reproductive Rights”

Last week, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) released its State of the World 2008 report. The report, entitled “Reaching Common Ground: Culture, Gender and Human Rights” seeks to promote “reproductive rights” around the world by using “culturally sensitive approaches.”

Such culturally sensitive approaches are critical for the realization of human rights, in particular women’s rights, according to “Reaching Common Ground.”

UNFPA asserts that millions of women still do not have control over spacing or limiting pregnancies, nor access to effective contraception. The report advocates “cultural sensitivity to mitigate and overcome resistance to couples and individuals voluntarily planning the timing, spacing and size of their families” as “it prepares the way for empowering women, in particular with control over their own fertility.” UNFPA concludes that culturally sensitive approaches are essential tools for development organizations concerned with promoting sexual and reproductive health.

According to the UNFPA report, “reproductive rights derive from the recognition of the basic right of all individuals and couples to make decisions about reproduction free from discrimination, coercion or violence,” and “they include the right to the highest standard of health and the right to determine the number, timing and spacing of children.”

“Reproductive rights” have been interpreted and used by organizations like the International Planned Parenthood Federation and the Center for Reproductive Rights to include abortion.  The term “reproductive rights” has never been agreed to by UN member states in a binding UN document and remains a source of heated debate amongst UN delegates.  Just within the last month, states like Malta have made explanations of position at the UN to define abortion out of any terms dealing with reproductive health, in particular the term “reproductive rights.”

UNFPA states that “advancing human rights requires an appreciation of the complexity, fluidity and centrality of culture by intentionally identifying and partnering with local agents of change.”  UNFPA seeks to take advantage of “the tensions and diverging goals inherent in every culture” to “create opportunities for UNFPA to promote human rights and gender equality, particularly when UNFPA can partner with local agents of social change and challenge dominant views from within the same cultural frame of reference.”

In terms of “reproductive rights,” UNFPA states that “cultural insights illuminate how context influences individual reproductive choices” and that the value of a culturally sensitive approach is that it “structures the kinds of interventions needed to accommodate mindsets and behavioral patterns.”

Critics are wary of UNFPA’s “culturally sensitive” approach to reproductive health and cite the examples of Nicaragua and China. In October 2006, the Nicaraguan parliament unanimously modified its penal code to ban all abortions. Prior to the vote, UNFPA ignored the broad-based political and popular support for the abortion ban and tried to stop the Parliament from changing the law. UNFPA also helped to set up and run the “culturally sensitive” one-child policy in China that has resulted in millions of abortions, many of them coerced or forced.  

Despite the controversy over the term “reproductive rights,” UNFPA executive director Thoraya Obaid continues to promote “reproductive rights” in her speeches. UNFPA officials continue to claim that the agency is “neutral” on the issue of abortion.

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