Cairo 20 years later – the challenges in Latin America

The 1994´s scenario in Latin America, when the “IV International Conference on Population and Development” in Cairo took place, no longer exists. This conference showed the need to fully respect women’s rights for the purpose of development.  In those days, several Latin American countries had incipient democracies, faced the emergence of serious corruption, as well as violation of human rights cases,  and a very deep economical crisis, so deep that it made us fear it would impossible to recover from it.

Twenty years have passed and the scenario seems to be quite different. The region shows encouraging macroeconomic figures. According to the Economic Commission for Latin American and the Caribbean – ECLAC data, 54% of the population was poor in 1994.  By 2012, this figure was down to 28%. North-South and East-West trade agreements have been established and most Latin American countries are no longer destinations considered just for adventure trips.  Now the region has fancy hotels and a range of tourist destinations to choose from.


Photo: Alex E. Proimos on Flickr

Nevertheless, some things never change, especially when we talk about marginalized groups, not touched by the economic growth. This has caused the region to be considered as one of the most inequitable. In fact, Latin America still has a lingering poor cluster, and it is the same as it was back in the nineties: indigenous and rural people, whose delay in development goes back about four decades and whose prospects of improvement are not promising at all.  Their basic needs, such as education and health, that should be covered by the state, do not seem to be fulfilled, condemning them to unending poverty.

Peru, my country, is the perfect example as its figures make the situation evident. Statistics on adolescent pregnancies have remained the same for about forty years, about 12 and 13%.  The numbers get even worse when we analyze the situation by geographic region.  There is a huge difference between urban and rural settings, which has numbers as high as 35% in some regions in the Peruvian Amazon.

Adolescent pregnancy does not only imply an early onset of women´s reproductive life.  It also implies female school dropout. There is a major disparity between the number of girls enrolled in the schools and the number of girls that manage to finish the school year, as well as between girls that go to primary school and the number that proceeds to secondary school.  According to the Demographic and Health Survey (ENDES 2012)” 13.2% of teen girls have been pregnant or are already mothers. It is important to mention that uneducated girls (56.7%), girls from the Peruvian Amazon (27.5%), from rural areas (21.5%) and the ones belonging to the poorest economic quintile (26.1%) are the most likely to get pregnant while they are still teenagers. These figures have remained the same for the last twenty years.

Despite this dramatic scenario and the already proven evidence of the benefits of investing in sexual education and access to sexual and reproductive health services, there has been no improvement in those areas, as the state has made minute investments in these fields.

The explanation does not seem to have anything to do with lack of resources, as was argued in 1994. Apparently there are other drivers, such as the adopted economic model   i.e. the assumption that promotion of private investment is enough to ensure access and resources, and that there is no need for state investment.  However, in my opinion the lack of investment described above is due to a failing recognition of sexual and reproductive rights, that is the main contribution of Cairo convention.

Unfortunately many countries in the region, that are portrayed as “modern” from an economic point of view, are still very conservative when it comes to the recognition of individual freedom, especially when adolescents are involved. As a result we live in a world where most people have access to the internet, but not to sexual education in schools, and in which the use of contraceptives is restricted; even though the National School Survey from 2011 indicates that at least 20% of adolescents who go to school have sexual relations.

These contradictions are not coincidental, nor do they stem from our conservative culture, or from our Catholicism.  They reflect the catholic hierarchy, and the huge political power this institution holds over public servants. It also comes from those who have given up on their responsibilities as public servants to take on roles that they do not believe in and would never apply to their close ones.

In the meantime, adolescents and their relatives bear the brunt. They already bring with them decades of poverty and social backwardness, perhaps because their mothers were also adolescent mothers; perpetrating the cycle. Meanwhile, the nation continues to celebrate the economic achievements.

Looking back at the commitments our countries agreed on in 1994, it makes us realize that a lot of time has been lost. However, it also gives us the opportunity to go back to the agenda, and to realize that poverty is no longer the main threat to development. The biggest threat is our weak democracies that have not yet made ​​people’s welfare the main focus of public policy.