INTERVIEW: Cooperation for the population

Nesmahar Sayed , Saturday 14 Aug 2021

Fredrika Meijier, UNFPA country representative of Egypt, speaks with Al-Ahram Weekly on the occasion of National Population Week


Fredrika Meijier is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Egypt country representative. Meijier took office in 2021 after previously holding the post of deputy regional director. Across 25 years with UNFPA, she held several posts extending from Ethiopia to Mexico. She worked extensively on reproductive health, gender, and adolescent reproductive health among other development issues in the UNFPA and beyond. Meijier says her passion is to enable adolescent girls to reach their full potential.

What are the plans to put an end to gender-based violence and reduce maternal deaths?

UNFPA plans to end gender-based violence. We are working very closely with the National Council of Women (NCW), both on providing services for women who have faced gender-based violence but also work on information sharing and making sure that women know there is no way that husbands can violate their rights. Women need to know for example, if you do not provide a proper meal your husband has no right to slap you. With NCW we go from door to door and we inform the family about their rights and how they should address those issues. We also make sure with NCW that there are clinics women can visit to get additional information.

What we also see under gender-based violence are two other harmful traditional practices: Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and early marriage. We are working closely with the Egyptian government on these issues. We work a lot with adult girls and their communities. We tell the girls that these are harmful practices against their rights. Early marriage is a harmful practice because it interferes with the development of girls. So if she is dropping out of school because the parents want her to marry then she can’t finalise her schooling and then can’t be a full-fledged member of society or find work. It is very important to keep girls in school so that they are not exposed to FGM or early marriage.

On reproductive health, UNFPA is mainly working with the Ministry of Health. UNFPA believes that if a woman wants contraceptives then she should get it and she should have the information to choose what kind of contraceptive is proper for her. With the Ministry of Health we are training doctors and nurses to provide women with all the information.

Another area we work on with the Ministry of Health is reducing maternal death. We want to have zero maternal deaths.

What are the biggest challenges facing national family planning and population programmes in Egypt?

The challenge in Egypt is to really implement the National Action Plan (NAP). It is a multi-sector programme which is extremely good but it is difficult to implement a multi-sector programme because all the ministers need to fall in line with each other. It is very good that the minister of planning and development leads the NAP. It is a challenge to bring them all together but the government established a very important pillar which is called the Demographic Observatory which is going to collect all the data from the different ministries so the government can provide mid-time corrections to the programme if they want to.

How can we slow down population growth?

The 102 million people in Egypt is a current reality. Sixty-two per cent are below the age of 29 so we have to make sure in the future that population growth is slower.

We have to make sure that people see the advantage of smaller families so we have to work on the mind set of people to make their own proper choices. We should also realise that people are making choices within the household and they are not making decisions based on the total population in the country. We work with all the family members and also with children.

There have been plans to reduce population growth since the 1960s. Why have they not worked?

Over the years since the 1960s we haven’t guaranteed that there is uninterrupted access to all the services. The civil society organisations, the government and the donors should work hand in hand and make sure that there is uninterrupted access to family planning services. We have to make sure that women have the right information and to understand the side effects of contraceptives, that they won’t harm their health.   

How can you fight traditions that support harmful practices?

We shouldn’t fight traditional heritage. Those people who support FGM believe that it comes from the Bible and Quran, but when we spoke to religious leaders such as the pope and the imam, both confirmed that FGM is not derived from neither the Bible nor the Quran. This is a very slow moving process. First the local religious leaders have to say this is not a religious practice. Changing the culture requires a lot of conversation, understanding and mutual decision-making within the community. From top down, there should be legislation stopping harmful practices. From the bottom up, there should be proper understanding of how people can change these harmful practices.

Some people want bigger families to send their children to work to increase their income. What do you think?

Children have to be at school, not in the labour market. Taking children out of school early means they will not have the skills to be part of the labour market. We should prosecute people who use children in child labour. We are working strongly with the International Labour Organisations on the programmes on child labour.  

How do you increase awareness among children about overpopulation?

In rural areas in Egypt we have the Population Awareness Clubs (PACS). Very young people learn through theatre, songs and sports means to discuss the issue of population and harmful practices in their communities. First, the groups come together to discuss the issues of their community then create a play about it. After the performance they start discussion with their communities. Their parents can also reflect on how young people see the issues in their community and hopefully this creates intergenerational dialogue.  

How can art help in raising awareness over the population crisis?

Art can help well because messages on reproductive health are sometimes culture-sensitive. Communities have their own words for certain issues. Plays touch the hearts, and what we need is to touch the hearts when people make decisions.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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