Universal Access Project and Policy at the United Nations Foundation
Sustainable Development Committee Chair
UNA – USA Northern NJ
Women’s rights and gender equality are taking centre stage this year. In 2020, the global community will mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995)—a progressive roadmap for gender equality. 2020 is also the five- year milestone towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
To honor this anniversary, the Sustainable Development Committee of the United Nations Association - Northern New Jersey Chapter interviewed Seema Jalan, Executive Director of the Universal Access Project and Policy at the United Nations Foundation, a multi-stakeholder initiative of foundations and NGOs strengthening U.S. leadership on sexual and reproductive health and rights globally. The initiative has helped protect international family planning and reproductive health programs in the world’s poorest countries including supporting 27 million women and couples with life-saving contraceptive services and supplies. Seema has almost 20 years of experience promoting gender equality and girls’ and women’s health and human rights globally. Therefore, we asked Seema a series of questions to understand the progress made towards improving health access for women.
What is your current role and can you tell me about it?
I’m the Executive Director of the Universal Access Project, a project of the United Nations Foundation that convenes an innovative community of donors and NGOs in a coordinated effort to protect and strengthen the largest source of funding for international reproductive health and family planning – U.S. foreign aid.
What inspired your global advocacy in promoting gender equality, girl’s and women’s health, and human rights for 20 years?
My parents are immigrants from India. Having had the opportunity to travel to India from a young age, I always knew that where you were born could shift the entire trajectory of the opportunities afforded to you – especially as a girl. I also always believed this didn’t have to be the case and that change was possible, even with just the example of the women in my family. For example, my maternal grandmother was married as a child to my maternal grandfather who grew up as orphan losing his parents to the plague – but they built a life investing in their children’s health, education and self-determination. My mom became a physician, and now here I am working my dream job at the UN Foundation because of these generational shifts. Our vision of a world where all girls and women can live safe, happy, healthy, productive lives is possible – I’m a product of it myself!
This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Fourth World Conference on Women and adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (1995). 2020 also marks the five- year milestone towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Can you tell us about the historical significance of these progressive roadmaps for gender equality?
We are at a unique moment in time for women’s health, rights, and equality: Last year, we marked the 25th anniversary of the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, when for the first time the majority of the world’s governments answered the call of activists and put individual reproductive health and rights at the center of global development. We’re now in the 25th anniversary year of the World Conference on Women in Beijing, when, again in response to calls to action from women globally, the world put forward what is considered the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights. We’re also at the starting line of the “Decade of Action” — with just 10 years left before the 2030 deadline to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals the world agreed to in 2015.
Our health, rights, and equality are central to this agenda and we as women are in the driver’s seat on driving progress on all our global goals. These moments are significant – they were 25 years ago, and they still are today – because they underscore a worldwide consensus that women’s rights are human rights.
Some might say that we need to put this vision aside as the world grapples with the Covid-19 pandemic, but the pandemic further exacerbates existing inequities. While this pandemic affects us all, girls and women face unique challenges. When crisis strikes and health care systems falter, inequalities are compounded, our specific needs are deprioritized, and we face additional barriers to care, particularly sexual and reproductive health care. These impacts will be magnified for the millions of girls and women around the world who already live in crisis or conflict zones, and for those are already marginalized. We are also critical in the response: Women represent 70 percent of the health and social sector workforce globally.
In both the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals , specific targets were set for women's health. Can you tell us what these targets are and how the Universal Access Project is supporting the United Nations to achieve these goals? (e.g. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals have set a target to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 deaths per 100 000 live births and mortality rates of children younger than 5 years to no more than 25 deaths per 1000 live births by 2030.)
In 2015, 193 Member States of the United Nations agreed to a remarkable consensus of 17 shared goals to drive global progress for a more equal world and a healthier planet. Two of these goals are dedicated to good health and wealth-being and to achieving gender equality, both of which include an explicit focus on women’s health and rights:
Goal 3: Good Health and Well-Being includes a number of health targets, including reducing maternal mortality, ending preventable deaths of newborns and children under five years of age, and ensuring universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services, including family planning.
Goal 5: Gender Equality includes targets to end all forms of discrimination against women and girls, end harmful practices and violence, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights, and more.
But in truth, we know that sexual and reproductive health and rights are critical to progress on all 17 of the goals, from ending extreme poverty and hunger to climate action. When we can plan if and when we become mothers, we are more likely to have healthy, well-educated children, leading to more resilient, prosperous families; thriving societies; and growing economies. The Universal Access Project and its partners are leading the collective charge to protect and advance what has been 50 years of significant U.S. leadership on global sexual and reproductive health to support the Sustainable Development Goals and girls, women, and communities everywhere. The U.S. was one of the 193 UN member states that committed to the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015, including the fundamental idea that women’s reproductive rights are key to an equitable world. As we inch closer to the target date to achieve those goals, the U.S. Administration must stay true to this commitment.
Can you share some successes in the field and how your work helps to accelerate the realization of gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, everywhere?
For half a century, with bipartisan support, the U.S. had been a leader in international sexual and reproductive health and rights, recognizing them as both fundamental human rights and a smart global investment. In recent years, however, the current U.S. Administration has rolled back this leadership, including through harmful policies and funding cuts such as the Global Gag Rule and the defunding of the UN Population Fund, the UN agency dedicated to reproductive rights – effectively cutting off basic, life-saving healthcare to the most marginalized communities in the world who have no recourse. The impact is significant because the United States is the largest single actor on global health in the entire world.
The Universal Access Project and our partners are working to hold the line against further damage, mitigate harm where we can, and set a forward-looking, proactive agenda for what we hope the future of U.S. leadership on this issue can look like going forward. In 2019 alone, for example, our collective effort safeguarded $600 million in U.S. foreign aid, which is estimated to provide contraceptives for 24 million women and couples who want them.
What are some challenges and common misconceptions about universal access to reproductive health and family planning?
Even after decades of global consensus in Cairo, in Beijing, and across UN member states – women’s health, rights, and equality – especially sexual and reproductive health and rights – continue to be in political crosshairs. Women’s rights are human rights. This is not revolutionary, it’s not up for debate, but time and again, it comes under threat.
How can the Northern New Jersey community join the movement to inform friends, family, and community members of the importance of supporting international reproductive health and family planning policies and initiatives?
How can men be engaged in sexual and reproduce health and rights, including family planning?
Gender equality and sexual and reproductive health and rights cannot be achieved without the meaningful participation of men. In fact, the ICPD Programme of Action calls specifically for men’s equal participation. Men have their own sexual and reproductive health and rights needs, and they have roles to play as supportive partners and agents of change in their communities.
How can we all use our voice?
There are so many opportunities to get involved – volunteer with a local organization; write, tweet, or call your Member of Congress to urge them to support women’s health and rights; use your buying power as a consumer to support companies who are investing in women’s health in their workforce; spread the word to your friends, family, and community. Every voice helps.