Q&A: Maternal Mortality Rates ‘One of the Saddest Cases’ in Asia

Marwaan Macan-Markar interviews NOELEEN HEYZER, U.N. under-secretary general and head of UNESCAP
BANGKOK, Nov 20 (IPS) – Nearly 15 years after a landmark international conference to advance the rights and freedoms of women, the picture in the Asia-Pacific region is mixed, says a leading women’s rights advocate and senior United Nations official.

While educated women and those with skills “can go as far as they want,” it is a different reality for those who come from Asia’s poorer millions. “There have never been cracks in the glass ceiling for many women in poor rural areas,” says Noeleen Heyzer, head of the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), a U.N. regional body based in Bangkok.

A similarly mixed picture appears with the push to strengthen the cause of women through the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), a U.N. treaty that has been ratified by 186 countries. While lawmakers and governments have embraced this international convention, culture and traditional beliefs have placed roadblocks.

Most disturbing for Heyzer is the region’s troubling record to slash the maternal mortality rates, the fifth goal in a set of eight development targets pledged by world leaders to be achieved by 2015. At a U.N. summit in 2000, the Millennium Development Goal for maternal mortality aimed to reduce by three-fourths the maternal mortality cases in 1990 by 2015.

Today, the Asia-Pacific region accounts for close to half of the nearly 500,000 maternal deaths recorded annually across the world.

“There is no reason why so many women have to die,” says Heyzer, who is also the former head of the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) before her appointment two years ago to head ESCAP. “The figures are shocking, especially in a region where you have economic powerhouses.” Heyzer spoke with IPS after the end of a three-day regional meeting here this week, where senior government officials, policy makers and activists met to review progress, highlight achievements and share stories in preparation for the 15-year review of the 1995 world conference on women held in Beijing

IPS: You have just finished a high-level meeting to review progress in the Asia and Pacific region nearly 15 years after the groundbreaking world conference in Beijing to advance the rights of women. Have all countries embraced this international policy shift and gone beyond empty promises?

NOELEEN HEYZER: Very much so. Firstly we have all the countries in this region except four that have adopted CEDAW. What has also been very good is that countries have gone ahead to shape their own national action plans to combat violence against women. They are Australia, Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Nepal, the Philippines and Thailand. It is so different from 15 years ago when ending violence against women was not on anyone’s agenda. It was stigmatised. There was so much silence around it.

IPS: So there is more space today to discuss issues concerning women that you could not openly discuss in the mid-1990s?

NH: Yes. The situation of rape as a weapon of war and sexual violence during conflicts are very much on the agenda today. But there is also recognition and acceptance that you need to invest in women when you are looking at peace building in post-conflict situations.

Women have to be at the peace table. It is not just about bringing warlords to the peace table, because women help to build communities and peace at the local level. Now women are part of the solution to help in the post-conflict recovery process.

IPS: But reaching this point has not been easy, as many women’s rights activists have admitted. In which area in this region have there been greater hurdles to secure the rights and greater freedoms for women—the political or cultural and social landscape?

NH: The cultural landscape has been more challenging. There have been excuses on violence against women, where culture is used. This is why the (U.N.) secretary-general (Ban Ki-moon) has led the effort to launch a global campaign to end violence against women. He is calling for men to take on a strong role and to lead this effort.

IPS: How is this campaign playing out in Asia?

NH: There are many countries where there is growing acceptance about redefining the role of masculinity and the role of culture. In Indonesia there are communities where the men are emerging to talk about how they prevent violence against women and how they increase their voices on this issue. But until laws are implemented and until there are resources, it will not be a full success.

IPS: But to turn your attention to politics, one of the goals that emerged out of the Beijing conference was to increase the representation of women in parliament. The benchmark was to have women make up 30 percent of legislative bodies in countries. But the record is far from that, somewhere around 18 percent. Why?

NH: This region is not doing well in this area. There are only two countries – Nepal and New Zealand – which have parliaments where more than 30 percent of the representatives are women. There is still a lot to be done.

Many women are not that enthusiastic in participating in the political sphere; they prefer the economic sphere or other areas of life. And politics is not easy in the Asia-Pacific region. It is very much tied in with money, with networking, a demand on time.

As long as you have a division of labour where women do not have time, where women suffer from time poverty, not just income poverty, this target will be a challenge. And it is not so much governments but the culture of the political system and how society has constructed itself.

IPS: One of the Millennium Development Goals seeks to slash maternal mortality by 2015. But the figures in this region are troubling. Doesn’t this go against the spirit and hope of the Beijing women’s conference?

NH: This is one of the saddest cases. There is no reason why so many women have to die. The figures are shocking, especially in a region where you have economic powerhouses. This is linked with the disparity in our region. This region is still home to the largest number of poor people, especially the rural poor.

The lack of investment in health care and in a social protection system is a factor. And even when you do have access to a health care system it is not easy for women to access them, because if there is insufficient income security when some of the poorest households have to make decisions involving the life of women, of a girl-child, it is the woman or the girl-child who gets sacrificed. The lack of health care systems reveals how a woman’s worth is undervalued.

IPS: Is this an urban phenomenon or one that affects rural communities?

NH: The rural poor have not been a priority concern, and investment in the agriculture sector is low. But it is not just rural communities—there are indigenous communities, remote communities up in the mountains. The affected women come from areas that have been marginalised.


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