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2019 marks a double anniversary: 50 years for UNFPA, and 25 years since the ground-breaking International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994.

UNFPA’s flagship report State of World Population, published globally today, takes stock of the progress and of what remains to be done.

In this interview, the UNFPA Representative for Myanmar, Ramanathan Balakrishnan, discusses State of World Population 2019: Unfinished Business – The pursuit of rights and choices for all, and what it means for Myanmar.


How did the world move from the concept of population control 50 years ago to the concept of individual sexual and reproductive rights today?


Remarkable gains have been made in sexual and reproductive health and rights since 1969, when UNFPA was established. Today, women in Myanmar give birth to 2.5 children on average. But 50 years ago, in 1969, fertility was about six births per woman in Myanmar – the same as the global average at the time. It was in that context that UNFPA was established.

At the time, much of the debate centred on the size of the world’s population. But as contraceptives programmes we rolled out on an unprecedented scale, the debate changed.

As real reproductive choices became a reality for more and more women, these women began to make the individual choice to have fewer children. Millions were finally gaining the power to make decisions about their own bodies, including whether or when to become pregnant. And this became instrumental to moving the world towards greater gender equality.

Since its creation in 1969, UNFPA has led a multilateral effort to help women navigate through an ever-changing landscape of barriers to their reproductive rights. This effort gained new momentum and inspiration 25 years ago in 1994, when 179 governments gathered in Cairo for the International Conference on Population and Development.

The result was a plan for sustainable development grounded in individual rights and choices and the achievement of sexual and reproductive health for all. Since then, the combined actions of civil society, governments, development institutions and UNFPA have unlocked opportunities and possibilities for women and girls in Myanmar and across the globe.


The title of UNFPA’s “State of World Population” report 2019 is “Unfinished Business – The pursuit of rights and choices for all”. What is Myanmar’s unfinished business when it comes to the rights of women and youth?


Despite the increasing availability of contraceptives over the years, hundreds of millions of women around the world today still have no access to them—and to the reproductive choices that come with them.

For Myanmar, 25 years after the country signed the ICPD declaration, one of the most pressing issues is that over two million women in Myanmar who would like to control their own fertility still do not have access to modern contraceptives.

Without this access, they lack the power to make decisions about their own bodies, including whether or when to become pregnant. The lack of this power—which influences so many other facets of life, from education to income to safety—leaves women unable to shape their own futures.


Why is it that over two million women in Myanmar cannot access modern contraceptives?


In fact, modern contraceptives are available in almost all health facilities in Myanmar. But available is not the same as accessible. There are deep-rooted socio-cultural barriers that limit women’s access to family planning. Breaking through these barriers is ever important, and UNFPA collaborates with the Government to tackle these barriers on all fronts.

One of the most important areas is information. Family planning must always be voluntary. And for it to be a genuine individual choice, each woman, each couple must be given the information they need to make an informed choice that is right for them.

Another barrier is a women’s marital status. Today, it is very difficult for women who are not married to access contraceptives. This affects young women disproportionately, and it leads to unwanted teenage pregnancy, something that fundamentally changes a young woman’s future plans and prospects. It is a fact that unintended teenage pregnancy entrenches poverty from one generation to the next.

All these barriers must be broken down so that women can gain control of their own bodies, their lives and their futures.


What is UNFPA’s goal?


UNFPA’s goal in Myanmar and all over the world is getting to three zeros:

  • ZERO unmet need for family planning
  • ZERO preventable maternal deaths
  • ZERO violence or harmful practices against women and girls

It is a goal that requires ambition and commitment. And we still have a long way to go before all women and girls have the power and the means to govern their own bodies and make informed decisions about their sexual and reproductive health. UNFPA values our partnership with the Government when it comes to reaching this goal. For example, we worked together with the Government to pioneer contraceptive implants for free through the public health sector. This has already made huge change for so many women in Myanmar.


What is the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25?


In November of this year, the governments of the world will convene at the Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 – Accelerating the promise. It will be an opportunity for Myanmar and all other countries to reaffirm their commitment to reproductive health, women's empowerment and gender equality, and to accelerate these as pathways to sustainable development.

The pursuit of rights and choices is an ongoing one, with new challenges emerging all the time. But we must keep going until rights and choices are a reality for all, and no one is left behind.

We must realize rights and choices for all. If not now, then when?