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UN- women and girls are not commodities - They are human beings with rights and privileges

Babatunde Osotimehin, the executive director of the UN population fund, UNFPA, told delegates at the international parliamentarians' conference that they had a duty to raise the status of women in their countries and to remind their heads of state of the commitments they made to improve the lives of women and girls.

The politicians are meeting in Sweden this week to discuss progress towards agreements made at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). "We say girls, you are old enough to be married and old enough to have sex and old enough to have children, but you are not old enough to have access to contraception, not old enough to have sexuality education, not old enough to have control of your own body. This simply does not make sense," Osotimehin said.

"It all goes back to the status of women. We must not treat women and girls as commodities. They are human beings with rights and privileges."

The ICPD conference, held in Cairo in September 1994, is considered a milestone moment in the fight for women's rights. For the first time, it put women's empowerment centre stage in efforts to address population growth and sustainable development. The document emanating from the conference – the Cairo agreement – made more than 200 recommendations that sought to give women social and economic empowerment.

Baroness Jenny Tonge, president of the European Parliamentary Forum on Population and Development (EPF), said the Cairo agreement was akin to a "Copernicus revolution". In the same way Copernicus discovered that the Earth revolves around the sun, politicians at Cairo discovered that sustainable development revolves around an individual and their access to sexual health services.

"If we think [in terms] of Copernicus, all over the world, delegates have recognised that sexual and reproductive health and family planning for individuals is good for basic wellbeing, it stabilises population growth, increases social and economic growth and that leads to sustainable development," she told almost 250 delegates gathered at the Swedish parliament. "He [Copernicus] stuck to his guns when he came under fire for it, and he was right."

Over the past 12 years, politicians have met six times to discuss experiences and share ideas for implementing the Cairo agreement, and explore ways to fulfil the glaring gaps in progress. Although many countries have laws promoting gender equality and banning harmful practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage, and despite, globally, maternal mortality rates having been cut by half, women still face significant challenges in exercising their rights.

About 800 women die each day during pregnancy and childbirth, and more than 200 million women who want to use modern forms of contraception are unable to access services. Laws are not being implemented, which means FGM and violence against women is allowed to continue with impunity. UNFPA said progress had been patchy and achievements have been unequal within and between countries.

The Stockholm meeting, organised by UNFPA and the EPF, is seen as particularly important, not only because it marks the 20th anniversary of Cairo, but also because it comes at a time when the international community is debating what should follow the millennium development goals, which expire next year.

The three-day event is expected to end with a declaration that organisers hope will take stock of accomplishments, reinvigorate politicians to press their peers and leaders to meet the 1994 targets and influence the post-2015 development agenda.

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