As the Arab world navigates the crises and opportunities of the 21st century, a future of boundless opportunity awaits if we strengthen human rights, choices, and dignity.
In Cairo in September 1994, global leaders lit a beacon of hope and laid a path to a peaceful and prosperous future where everyone can reach their potential. The landmark vision of the International Conference on Population and Development made clear that women’s and girls’ reproductive rights and choices underpin all progress and development.
Nearly 30 years on, and despite conflicts, climate change, and Covid-19, the evidence shows that investing in women’s and girls’ health, rights, and choices powers progress and prosperity and that the vision forged in Cairo remains as relevant and crucial today as it did in 1994.
The implementation of that vision, however, requires greater political will and investment if we are to sustain some of the gains made in the last 30 years and make new strides.
Consider the statistics of the region in 2023. Just one-third of women in the Arab region could plan their families with modern contraceptives in 1994, compared to nearly half today, and for every dollar spent on modern contraceptives and reducing maternal deaths in the region, five are gleaned through economic gains.
Maternal mortality has dropped from 285 deaths per 100,000 live births in the Arab region in 1994 to 145 today. So far, 11 Arab states have met the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) of bringing maternal deaths below 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030.
Looking forward, if $7 billion are invested in strengthening maternal health by 2050, the Arab region could generate an almost five-fold return of more than $34 billion. Not to mention the many thousands of mothers’ lives saved and countless children’s futures secured.
However, there is much more to do.
Gender-based violence spikes during strife and instability, and conflict-hit Arab countries must prioritise services for survivors and those at risk. They must strengthen systems to support women and girls that face sexual and gender-based violence and hold the perpetrators to account.
The Arab region carries a heavy portion of the global burden of harmful practices, including female genital mutilation (FGM) and child marriage. Investing in ending such harmful practices will both ensure the rights and dignity for millions of girls and women and also lead to great economic gains.
Every one dollar spent in ending FGM in the worst-affected countries in the Arab region can yield $5 in economic returns in a matter of 25 years, while investing one dollar in ending child marriage can yield more than $35 in economic returns
At just 26 per cent, the Arab region has the world’s lowest rate of women’s economic participation, while the global average is well over half. Yet, according to the World Bank, closing the gender gap in employment could raise GDP per capita by an average of 20 per cent.
As climate change swells floods, droughts, and disasters, women and youth must be at the table to secure a sustainable future. Young people will inherit the planet, and women – often tasked with securing water, food, and fuel – rely more on natural resources for their livelihoods. This makes them essential for the design and rollout of climate adaptation and mitigation strategies.
Our people are our greatest asset. With a diverse, dynamic, and youthful population set to rise above 530 million by 2030, the Arab world is brimming with talent, drive, and energy.
As the 30th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development rapidly approaches, leaders and experts are meeting in Beirut to assess progress and look to the future.
To build peaceful, prosperous, and sustainable societies, the Arab states must put women and young people front and centre in their development plans. By boosting human rights, choices, and dignity, we can unlock an Arab world of opportunity.
* The writer is UNFPA Arab states regional director.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 14 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly