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Minister launches All Party Group Photo Exhibition

Gender, Health, Speeches, Global, Ireland, 2014

Speech by the Minister of State for Trade and Development

Joe Costello TD

At the launch of an exhibition of photographs by the All Party Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Development. 


Chair, Deputies and Senators

I am honoured to have been invited by the All Party Working Group on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights and Development to today’s photo exhibition.

Just two weeks ago UN Population Fund (UNFPA) published the results of the Global Review Report of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) marking the twentieth anniversary of the Cairo Programme of Action in 1994.

Tomorrow, at the UN in New York, I will be meeting with the Executive Director of the UNFPA, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, to share views on the findings of the report which go to the heart of so many aspects of the ongoing discussions on the Post 2015 agenda.  These include Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights; gender equality and empowerment of women; and the provision of comprehensive sexuality education to adolescents.

On Friday, I have been invited to join the panel at the UN High Level event looking at the Contribution of Women, the Young and Civil Society to the post 2015 Development Framework.

And of course Saturday is International Women’s Day. So let me be amongst the first to congratulate you in advance of International Women’s Day and to thank you for your leading role in the Oireachtas on the issue of sexual and reproductive health in development.

As the photo exhibition so vividly demonstrates sexual and reproductive health is central to the rights of women and children including their right to dignity; to personal freedom; to health; to education; to employment; and to the overall wellbeing of their families.

The ICPD Global Review Report

Twenty years ago the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo marked a turning point – away from a “demographic targets” approach to population issues – and towards a groundbreaking consensus that increasing social, economic and political equality, and access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, is the basis for individual well-being, lower population growth, and sustainable development.  

The evidence of the ICPD Global Review Report overwhelmingly endorses that consensus. Drawing on data from 176 countries, expert consultations and academic research, and a series of regional and thematic consultations, the report shows significant achievements over the past 20 years. 

Fewer women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth. Globally, maternal mortality worldwide fell by nearly half between 1990 and 2010, still of course an unacceptably high level.  More women now have access to education, work and political participation. More children, girls in particular, are going to school, with primary school enrolment rates approaching 90%.  And nearly 1 billion people have moved out of extreme poverty.

But as the Executive Director of the UNFPA points out, this progress does not tell the whole story. The report reveals in stark detail the persistent inequalities and discrimination threatening to derail development.  In many countries, progress is limited to the wealthy, with enormous numbers of people being excluded from the process and benefits of development.

More than half of the absolute gains in global income from 1988 to 2008 went to the richest 5%. None went to the bottom 10%. In the poorest communities, women’s status, maternal mortality, child marriage, and many of the other concerns of the Cairo conference have seen too little progress over the past two decades.

Today, around 800 women will die giving life. 1 in 3 women worldwide reports having experienced physical and/or sexual abuse.  In a recent study from one region, 1 in 4 men admitted to rape.

Marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in 158 countries.  Yet 1 in 3 girls in developing countries are married before the age of 18 with dire consequences for their education, health and their opportunities for a better life.

The report highlights that there is no country in which women are equal to men in political or economic power.  Too many people, particularly the poor, still live without access to sexual and reproductive health services, including family planning.  And laws designed to protect the rights of women and girls, where they exist, are often not enforced.

Twenty years on, progress has been made, but we still have a long way to go in realising the vision of Cairo. And the ICPD Beyond 2014 review shows us that this vision is as relevant today as we discuss the Post 2015 Development Framework as it was in 1994.

Ireland’s Support To Sexual and Reproductive Health

Ireland’s approach to Sexual and Reproductive Health is set out clearly in our Policy for International Development “One World One Future”.

Our policy contains specific commitments to “support efforts that reduce maternal and infant mortality, and promote universal access to reproductive healthcare, including ante-natal care and family planning services”.

More generally, the vision of a “sustainable and just world, where people are empowered to overcome poverty and hunger and fully realise their rights and potential” sets an overall framework to support sexual and reproductive health through foundations built on investments in human rights; gender equality and women’s empowerment; girls education; nutrition - a pre-requisite for a healthy pregnancy and infancy; as well as more equitable access to improved national health systems.

From village health centres in Tanzania to District Hospitals in Mozambique, I have had the personal privilege of witnessing at first hand Ireland’s contribution to improving maternal and child health outcomes. In Karamoja, one of the most deprived regions in Uganda, we are building schools and dormitories to ensure that girls from pastoral communities can receive a secondary education.

When I visited the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, I was impressed by UNFPA - one of our key UN partners – which in the midst of a complex humanitarian and political crisis was playing a critical role in ensuring that Syrian women have continued access to family planning services -  as evidenced from the photographs in the exhibition today.

In Zambia, we are supporting work with traditional leaders to overcome the cultural barriers, including child marriage, associated with girls missing out on school. We are also working to ensure that national education guidelines are implemented which will encourage girls to return to school after their pregnancy.

As I mentioned earlier, tomorrow I will meet with the Executive Director of UNFPA. We have provided some €33 million to UNFPA in support of their work on reproductive health and gender equality since 2007. The evidence of our commitment to sexual and reproductive rights can be gauged from the fact that, despite difficult cutbacks elsewhere, our core financial contribution to UNFPA has not been cut since 2009.  This year, we will provide €3.1million in core funding.

Post 2015 Development Framework

We are also using our influence at the European Union, United Nations; and at the Human Rights Council to ensure that sexual and reproductive health is at the heart of the Post 2015 Development Framework.

During our Presidency of the EU Council I hosted a meeting of EU Development Ministers in Dublin to review progress on the MDGs and to prepare the EU position for the MDG Review Summit last September. Despite national differences we prepared EU Council Conclusions which provided a strong EU voice and a coherent set of messages for the Post 2015 Framework including on the issue of sexual and reproductive health.

Ireland was privileged to be invited by the UN Secretary General to co-facilitate the preparations for the MDG Review Summit and we used the Summit itself to get across a strong message seeking specific commitments in relation to the empowerment of women and girls and to ensuring that human rights; good governance; and accountability are at the core of all our efforts.

Ireland’s clear position is that all countries should fully uphold the commitments they entered into at the International Conference on Population and Development and I look further to discussing this in more detail with UNFPA tomorrow.

“One World One Future” explicitly commits Ireland to ensuring that “human rights principles and standards are promoted, protected and integrated in all our development efforts” and we will fully honour this commitment in our engagement on the post 2015 Development Framework.

We are also heavily committed to our role on the Human Rights Council where we are committed to addressing gender inequalities and integrating a gender perspective across all the work of the Council. Last September the Human Rights Council approved a new resolution initiated by Ireland on the practical application of a human rights based approach to the preventable deaths of children under five.

At the same time the Council adopted two resolutions particularly relevant to adolescent pregnancy both co-sponsored by Ireland: the first on “early, child and forced marriage”; the second on the scourge of Female Genital Mutilation which through your support in the Oireachtas has now been made a criminal offence here in Ireland.   


Although we must not underestimate the task ahead, I believe that there is an extraordinary global will to fulfil the promises we made at the International Conference on Population and Development and in the MDGs.

As others have said, if we have the courage to grasp the opportunity, we now have the capability to reach the goal of ending extreme poverty and hunger within a generation.

Keeping the ICPD commitments - including sexual and reproductive health rights and women’s empowerment - at the heart of the Post 2015 agenda will be critical to realising that goal.

In the photos, the thirteen year old girl with obstetric fistula serves as a reminder that her generation - born at the turn of the millennium are already the adolescents of today.

We must not forget the faces in the photos. They serve to remind us that some of these girls have already entered early marriage and motherhood.

We owe it to them to ensure that the Post 2015 agenda drives a better future for their children - and ensures complete freedom from extreme poverty and hunger for their grandchildren.