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25 Years Later, a Landmark Framework on Rights and Choices is More Relevant Than Ever

Much has been achieved for girls and women under the ICPD Programme of Action, but much work remains

Statement on International Day of the Girl Child, 11 October 2019


To mitigate global climate change, twelve-year old activist Yola Mgogwana makes eco-bricks with rubbish and encourages her peers to emulate her actions. She is part of Earth Child Project, a non-profit organization operating in disadvantaged schools in Cape Town, South Africa.

Yola epitomizes #GirlForce: Unscripted and unstoppable. The theme of this year’s International Day of the Girl Child signifies the immense potential of girls and women around the world. But for that potential to be realised, they must be able to freely and fully exercise the rights and choices envisioned under a landmark framework crafted in Cairo 25 years ago – the Programme of Action that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development, or ICPD.

That’s when 179 countries unanimously agreed that individual rights and choices – with an emphasis on the sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights of all – must lie at the heart of sustainable development, underpinned by gender equality and encompassed by human rights.

Is the cup half empty or half full?

So, how far have we come in fulfilling the vision of Cairo?

As governments, civil society and UN partners prepare for next month’s ICPD25 Summit in Nairobi, it’s a good time to take stock of the significant progress made – and the significant gaps that remain.

Since 1994, millions of women have accessed modern contraception, choosing if or when to have children, how many and with whom. Still, more than 214 million women today have an unmet need for family planning.

Linked to family planning and strengthened midwifery, preventable maternal mortality has dropped across all regions. Still, more than 303,000 women die of causes linked to pregnancy or childbirth each year, some 85,000 of them in Asia and the Pacific and another 77,000 in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Gender-based violence and harmful practices, such as child marriage and female genital mutilation, remain a scourge, even though efforts to address them are gaining traction.

Child marriage, for example, has been dropping steadily although progress remains uneven within, and among, regions and countries. Ten years ago, one in four women below the age of 18 was married; today it’s one in five.

While South Asia still has the highest number of child brides, the burden of child marriage is shifting to Sub-Saharan Africa. Population growth in this region threatens to result in an ever-higher number of girls forced to marry in the coming years, with detrimental social and economic outcomes. The rates for Latin America and the Caribbean today are as high as they were 25 years ago. The Middle East and North Africa region has made substantial gains in reducing child marriage, but progress has slowed in the past decade. Though West and Central Africa has experienced a modest reduction from 50 per cent in 1991 to 42 per cent in 2019, the region is still above the global average of 20 per cent. None of our regions are on track to meet the SDG target of eliminating child marriage by 2030.

Teen pregnancy continues to be unacceptably high. Each year, about 16 million girls aged 15 to 19, and some 2.5 million girls under 16 give birth in developing regions. Complications during pregnancy and childbirth are the leading cause of death among adolescent girls. Almost 4 million girls undergo unsafe abortions every year.

We need governments to remove the legal and policy barriers to youth-friendly sexual and reproductive health information and services, including vital comprehensive sexuality education.

The horror of female genital mutilation remains a reality for millions of girls even in this, the 21st century. It’s seen in most corners of the globe to one extent or another, although the practice is primarily concentrated in 29 countries in Africa and the Arab region. 

In some areas, FGM is decreasing, but in some countries it’s actually increasing. If current FGM prevalence remains unchanged, 15 million girls born between 2000 and 2005 will have their genitals mutilated by 2020. 

Countries are beginning to conduct violence against women surveys to determine the extent of the crisis, so as to bring about better policies to address it. But the fact remains that, on average, one out of three women experiences some form of physical or sexual violence at some point in her life, usually at the hands of an intimate partner. Numbers are much higher if non-physical forms of violence are included; a recent study in Eastern Europe found 70 percent of women to be affected.

To address these multiple, complex and interrelated challenges effectively, we must ultimately address the negative social and cultural norms that relegate girls to a lower status than boys. And to better identify and illustrate these harms to better address them, we need robust data that clearly demonstrate the significant disparities between girls and boys, as a wake-up call to governments and other stakeholders, so that these challenges can no longer be downplayed or ignored.

Recommit to the world we want

When governments, civil society and UN partners convene for the ICPD25 Summit in Nairobi a month from now, we truly have a golden opportunity to recommit to the vision of Cairo by going back to the future.

This is all the more vital, yet all the more challenging, at a time when rising conservatism and pushback are jeopardizing the gains made for girls and women.

This is why we must rekindle the ICPD movement, strengthen current alliances and create new ones, with inspired political leadership across all regions. This is why UNFPA will continue to support governments to do what’s right, what’s just and what’s needed for the health, safety and wellbeing of girls and women everywhere.

Let’s recommit to the world we want, to ensure that #GirlForce is not just an empty slogan, but becomes a reality for the millions of girls today whose futures we collectively hold in our hands.


UNFPA Regional Directors

Luay Shabaneh, Arab States

Bjorn Andersson, Asia and Pacific

Dr. Julitta Onabanjo, East and Southern Africa

Alanna Armitage, Eastern Europe and Central Asia

Harold Robinson, Latin America/Caribbean

Mabingue Ngom, West and Central Africa