Yoriko Yasukawa is the Asia-Pacific Regional Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Annette Sachs Robertson is the UNFPA Country Representative in Indonesia where the ASEAN Secretariat is based.
JAKARTA, Indonesia, 18 April 2017: As the Association of Southeast Asian Nations approaches its 50th anniversary this year, a momentous milestone, the region is at a crossroads more than ever on several fronts, including the rights, health and wellbeing of millions of women and girls.
Policies and decisions taken now by individual countries and ASEAN as a whole can propel Southeast Asia towards greater prosperity grounded in human rights and genuine gender equality - helping fulfill the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its Sustainable Development Goals whose collective pledge is to leave no one behind.
Or, amid the growing tendency toward conservatism, and in some cases violent extremism, gains made in improving the health and fulfilling the rights of women and young people – especially girls – could be eroded, hence also slowing down progress towards the SDGs.
ASEAN-UN cooperation: Advancing shared principles and objectives
These opportunities and challenges are reflected across the 2016-2020 Plan of Action to Implement the Joint Partnership between ASEAN and the United Nations, the focus of a high-level meeting between ASEAN and UN agencies in Jakarta this week.
The pillars of this plan include cooperation on the political and security, economic and socio-cultural fronts – based on principles and objectives shared by the two organizations, including peace, respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and sustainable development.
For UNFPA, it is encouraging that the plan of action contains clear commitments toward building a world where every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe, every young person’s potential is fulfilled – and where everyone counts.
Family planning and sexual & reproductive health: A barometer of ASEAN’s success
All ASEAN member states have made important strides furthering sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights, including reductions in maternal mortality, a true test of the value countries place on the lives of their women.
For example, between 1990 and 2015, Cambodia achieved an 84 per cent drop in the number of women who died from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth. For Lao People’s Democratic Republic, the corresponding decline was 78 per cent and for Viet Nam and Myanmar 61 per cent each.
These numbers are linked to the availability of contraception and other family planning services to help avoid unplanned and unwanted pregnancies.
They are also the result of the invaluable work of midwives and skilled birth attendants who help save women’s lives before, during and after childbirth. UJNFPA and ASEAN worked together to produce standardized guidelines for the work of these health professionals, and promoted knowledge sharing between countries.
Such collective efforts for strengthening national health systems are essential not only for ensuring sexual and reproductive health and rights, but also for the broader goal of universal health coverage.
Significant successes, significant challenges
The Philippines offers a positive example for the ASEAN region with its Responsible Parenthood and Reproductive Health Act passed in 2012, whose full implementation is included in the new Philippine Development Plan 2017-2022.
UNFPA hopes that ongoing legal barriers to implementing the law can be overcome as soon as possible, so that decisive action can be taken to address the unmet need for family planning which at 33 per cent is higher than the ASEAN average. This in turn will be key to reducing the Philippines’ maternal mortality rate of 114 per 100,000 live births – one of the highest in the region.
In Thailand, a champion of universal health coverage, the unmet need for family planning is barely seven per cent, with the second-lowest maternal mortality ratio (after Singapore) within ASEAN – at 20 per 100,000 live births, a laudable achievement.
Yet the numbers of teenage pregnancies in Thailand have risen alarmingly in the past decade, in part due to an absence of effective comprehensive sexuality education – a gap that is common across ASEAN countries. The Thai government introduced pioneering legislation last year, with UNFPA support, that seeks to address this situation by providing and expanding youth-friendly services, comprehensive sexuality education and supporting pregnant girls to remain in school.
In Indonesia, where the ASEAN Secretariat is based, the unmet need for family planning stood at about 13 per cent in 2015, significantly lower than Cambodia (almost 30 per cent), Lao PDR (at about 25 per cent) and Myanmar (19.5 per cent). Indonesia’s long-running family planning programme has been lauded as a success story, and deservedly so.
But there are challenges going forward given the persistently high maternal mortality and staggered contraceptive prevalence. Decentralization of public health services across Indonesia’s vast terrain in recent years, coupled with rising conservatism and cultural preferences that emphasize larger families and seeks to restrict women’s and young persons’ choices, are already impacting access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
Indonesia is by no means alone in this – similar patterns are being played out elsewhere in ASEAN and globally as well. We hope that political and social leaders in the ASEAN region will work together to promote dialogue among people and organizations of diverse beliefs to build consensus around the imperative to guarantee the sexual and reproductive health and rights of all people, particularly women and girls.
Addressing violence against women: A key challenge
Linked to sexual and reproductive health is the scourge of violence against women and other harmful practices, including child marriage – challenges that ASEAN has long recognized as a priority to be tackled.
Nine ASEAN countries, including Indonesia, have laws against domestic violence, although not all cover marital rape. Five countries have laws covering sexual harassment. And five countries have national action plans on addressing violence against women, seeking to ensure that laws are effectively enforced.
In several countries, and often with UNFPA support, governments are working to collect data on violence against women, to fully reveal the scope of the crisis and strengthen legislation and policy in an area all too often ignored by society as a whole.
ASEAN already has a strong regional action plan in place to eliminate violence against women. Now is the time to accelerate implementation of the plan, as well as of the national laws and plans of action that already exist. UNFPA hopes to work with ASEAN countries to help amend or adopt legislation to address all forms of violence that affect women and girls. And critically, governments need to boost investment in prevention and response, and ensure that all sectors – health, justice, social welfare – are harnessed in this effort.
Achieving Planet 50-50 by 2030: Can ASEAN meet the challenge?
ASEAN’s half-century occurs barely two years into the regional and global trek along the road to 2030 – a destination shared by governments, the UN family and civil society alike.
The Sustainable Development Agenda explicitly envisions a Planet 50-50 by 2030 – as spelled out via specific targets under Goal 5, Gender Equality, complemented by cross-cutting targets under many other SDGs. The ASEAN-UN plan of action, across its various pillars, aspires to this as well.
At a time when the very components of gender equality, including sexual and reproductive health and rights, are being questioned in so many quarters regionally and globally, we hope that ASEAN and its member states can and will rise to the occasion to strengthen these rights – in individual countries and for the region as a whole.
This will be critical to the outcomes of not only ASEAN-UN collaboration, but the wider success of the 2030 Agenda in Southeast Asia and around the world.