Current population dynamics in Europe, North America and Central Asia must be seen as an opportunity, not a threat, senior officials of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, and the UN Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) said at the opening of the high-level ICPD regional review conference "Enabling Choices: Population Priorities for the 21st Century", taking place on 1-2 July in Geneva.
"Most countries in this region are growing older and more diverse but this is no cause for alarm," said Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, Deputy Executive Director of UNFPA. "Societies are bound to benefit from these changes, but for this to happen governments must put in place smart policies strengthening the human capital of their societies. This means investing in the education, health and work opportunities of individuals, allowing them to reach their full potential throughout the entire life course, and irrespective of where they come from or what family setting they live in."
"We assert today that the population dimension is a key element of sustainable development which rests on social, economic and environmental pillars and also considers the impact of development on the opportunities of future generations", said Andrey Vasilyev, UNECE Deputy Executive Secretary: "It is therefore indispensable to reconcile the needs of all groups within society, young and old, men and women and people with special needs".
These statements are backed by the recent survey and analysis conducted as part of the review of the implementation of the Programme of Action adopted by the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo in 1994. This process included an extensive survey conducted by UNECE among its member States, an academic analysis provided by the Wittgenstein Centre (Vienna), as well as three meetings with civil society, experts, youth representatives and parliamentarians from across the region. All of these will form the substance of the UNECE regional conference. The conference seeks to build consensus and reinforce commitments to the ICPD Programme of Action.
People in many countries of the region live longer, healthier lives, and have higher levels of education than past generations. Many countries in Eastern Europe and Central Asia have struggled with the consequences of often painful transition processes after the collapse of communism. But following a sharp decline in the 1990s, key indicators such as life expectancy and fertility have stabilized and even show an upward trend again, according to new data and analysis to be presented at the conference. The total population in the region amounted to 1.24 billion people in 2010, up from 1.18 billion in 2000.
Fertility levels overall remain low in most countries of the region, and as a result of increasing longevity and low birth rates, populations are ageing. The number of people aged 65 years and above has increased to 14%, or 174.5 million. At the same time, societies are becoming more diverse due to increasingly complex migration patterns and the changing nature of families, gender relations and individual life choices.
Although often presented as threats in the public discourse, these dynamics can have positive effects for societies if governments anticipate changes and respond in a timely and comprehensive manner, experts agreed in a series of preparatory meetings in the run-up to the conference.
The human rights of individuals and respect for their life choices – including when to have children and how many – must be central to policy development, experts said. Access to sexual and reproductive health and rights for all, including vulnerable and marginalized groups is imperative.
One of the most troubling negative trends in the region is the increase in HIV prevalence rates. Over the past two decades HIV prevalence nearly doubled from 0.25 to 0.41 percent of population aged 15 to 49, making this the only world region where HIV is still on the rise. Injecting drug users, men having sex with men and young people below 24 years of age are at particular risk.
Policy achievements and gaps: the outcomes of the ICPD Beyond 2014 Survey in the UNECE region
Two decades after the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) adopted a Programme of Action in Cairo in 1994, states now have a variety of policies and programmes in place that go beyond traditional population policies to include social and welfare policies.
In many cases, these policies cover vulnerable groups such as youth, the aged, the disabled and women, according to the survey of the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action conducted among UNECE Member States, which will be presented at the conference. The UNECE survey report also identifies a number of gaps that require further policy attention. These include:
The review showed that involving civil society, changing mindsets and working together across borders is key for implementing the ICPD agenda. But it also made clear that progress is not linear: the current financial and economic crisis created new vulnerabilities and raised inequalities that governments need to address.
The conference, organized jointly by UNFPA and UNECE, will use the survey, as well as academic research and the preparatory meetings outcomes, to discuss and build consensus around key areas that need commitment and action following the renewal, by the UN General Assembly, of the Programme of Action beyond 2014.
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