26th October 1997


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Dr. Sadik defuses the population bomb

Dr. Nafis Sadik, the Executive Director of UNFPA crusades for better reproductive health for women

By Roshan Peiris

She is confident. She has her facts and figures stacked in her mind and rarely has the need to look at notes. She is neatly dressed with short hair. Her personality is magnetic. She is Dr. Nafis Sadik, the Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Under-Secretary General of the United Nations, overseeing a budget of 300 million dollars, and over 900 officers.

Dr. SadikDr. Sadik served her internship in gynaecology and obstetrics at the City Hospital, Baltimore Maryland. She joined the UNFPA in October 1971. Working as Assistant Executive Director from 1982 to 1987 she has built up the UNFPA's international programme.

She certainly adorns her high profile position and believes that personal health and wellbeing is a baseline indicator for development and an integrated approach to social development is essential for achieving universal health.

Her message is clear, that wherever the leadership of a country is strongly committed to economic growth, human resource development, gender equality and equity and finally meeting wholeheartedly the health needs of the people, such countries have been ably mobilized to a sustained commitment at all levels. This makes for successful population and development programmes and projects.

Dr. Sadik fielded questions from a demanding press with confidence and aplomb, during her short visit to Sri Lanka early last week.

For Sri Lanka the UNFPA had allocated 4.8 million US dollars for activities to improve the quality of reproductive health care. This is done through training medical and paramedical officers, she said.

The UNFPA programme seeks to establish 300 women's clinics, upgrade existing ones, and focus on the prevention and early detection of reproductive tract infections. This also includes sexually transmitted disease such as AIDS and also breast cancer, cervical cancers, infertility and anaemia.

The Sunday Times asked her whether should it would be wise to teach sexual health care and the need to know about the consequences of unwanted abortions in the upper classes at school.

"We have done some studies in fifty countries, which have shown that young people should be taught a sense of responsibility regarding health care and we have also included parents and teachers who show a reluctance to talk over these matters with their young children," Dr. Sadik said.

She felt that young people of both sexes are typically poorly informed in most countries, on how to protect themselves from unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases such as HIV-AIDS.

In Asian and African countries, women, especially in the rural areas give the lowest priority to their own health. What motivation could be given to them to break away from this old fashioned thinking?

"One has to first address women themselves, on the need to look after their own health. Women must address themselves to this. It is imperative. One has to motivate them and motivate the need for men to pay attention to women's health within their home and community. This does make a big difference to motivate women's and more so men," she said.

In answer to a question Dr. Sadik said that the UNFPA does not stipulate or advocate a particular age for marriage for young people. It depends on each country, its traditions and mores.

To a question on abortion she said that abortion rates are high worldwide. In married women it is sometimes due to unwanted pregnancies. Whether a country should or should not abolish abortion depends on the country itself, she added.

To a question on the side effects of the 'pill,' such as cancer etc., Dr. Sadik said "Now the low dosage pill is safe, unlike the high dosage pill used years ago. There is an effort by the UNFPA to change male attitudes towards contraceptives. Usually males don't like it."

Dr. Sadik faces the 21st century with confidence and cogent plans. Among them is a big push towards forming a forum, inviting governments to discuss existing obstacles to reproductive health and what remains to be done. The problem of international migration and the rights and status of women and the changes which need to be taken to identify their issues will be taken up.

It is gratifying that Dr. Sadik thinks that Sri Lanka has more or less controlled its population explosion and in fifty years the population will be stabilised at around 24 million.

To help with sexual violence, to mitigate and overcome this in families the UNFPA seeks the help of NGOs. It will become part of the South problem, she said.

There is no doubt that Dr. Sadik richly deserves the reputation as an effective and strong manager and an international leader in the field of population and development. She is known as an advocate of human rights and individual empowerment. She is also an outstanding fund raiser. In the decade 1987-1996 the resources of the UNFPA, all voluntary contributions, more than doubled from 140 million to 313 million US dollars.

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