UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations warns that a sharp decline in international funding for reproductive health is threatening global efforts to reduce poverty, improve health and empower women worldwide.
"This is especially evident in the case of funding for family planning where absolute dollar amounts are lower than they were in 1995," says Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, in a report released here.
If this trend is not reversed, he cautions, it will have "serious implications for the ability of countries to address the unmet need for such services, and could undermine efforts to prevent unintended pregnancies and reduce maternal and infant mortality."
Compounding the problem further, the largest share of population funding is now being diverted to fight HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).
Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population (UNFPA), says funding for family planning as a percentage of all population assistance has dropped considerably, from 55 percent in 1995 to 7.0 percent in 2005.
"The victims of this funding gap are poor women in poor countries who cannot exercise their reproductive rights and plan their families," she told IPS. "It is a serious problem that needs to be urgently addressed."
Addressing a weeklong meeting of the U.N. Commission on Population and Development (CPD), which concluded Friday, Obaid said there are some 200 million women in the developing world with unmet needs for effective contraception.
The highest number, she said, is in Africa.
"The result is increasing numbers of unwanted pregnancies, rising rates of unsafe abortion, and increased risks to the lives of women and children," she told the Commission.
The current crisis, Obaid pointed out, is also threatening to undermine the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including reduction in extreme poverty and improvement on maternal health.
"We will not attain the Millennium Development Goals, especially MDG 5 on maternal health, if we do not ensure universal access to reproductive health," Obaid said.
"Sexual and reproductive health is essential to women's empowerment and gender equality. And family planning is key to maternal and child health," she added.
Obaid noted that research indicates that ensuring access to family planning alone would reduce maternal deaths by 20 to 35 percent and child deaths by 20 percent.
At the same time, overall donor assistance to population activities continues to increase.
Following the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994, there was little progress because increases were negligible. But by 2005, donor assistance stood at 7.4 billion dollars. The figure for 2006 is expected to reach about 8.1 billion dollars, with further increases to 9.8 billion dollars in 2007 and 10.3 billion dollars in 2008.
The ICPD estimated about 8.0 percent of total population assistance for STDs/HIV/AIDS; 62 percent for family planning services; 29 percent for basic reproductive health services; and one percent for research, data and population and development policy analysis.
But actual spending in 2005, for example, saw a dramatic increase for STDs (72 percent), while funding for family planning services declined to 7.0 percent and basic reproductive health services to 17 percent, with an increase of 4.0 percent for research and analysis.
The 16-page U.N. report, which went before the CPD, predicts that the increase in funding for AIDS-related activities will continue, primarily for prevention, as well as treatment and care, and especially for funding for antiretroviral therapy.
"There are fears that the larger share of funding that goes to AIDS activities might distract the attention for the necessary funding for the other three elements of the costed population package," the report notes.
Still, it argues, there has also been an escalation of current needs and costs, in all four areas, compared with original ICPD estimates in 1994. Since that time, the population and health situation in the world has also changed dramatically.
The HIV/AIDS crisis is far worse than anticipated while infant, child and maternal mortality remain unacceptably high in many parts of the world. In addition, continues the report, health care costs have increased substantially since 1994.
As a result, the ICPD targets are not sufficient to meet current developing-country needs in all four areas.
"It is essential that all governments, of both donor and developing countries, re-commit themselves to implementing the objectives of the Conference (ICPD) and mobilising the resources required to meet these objective, given current needs," the report adds.
Without a firm commitment to population, reproductive health and gender issues, "it is unlikely that the goals and targets of the Conference and the Millennium Summit (and MDGs) will be met," the report concludes.
© 2008 Inter Press Service