A Different Labor Day

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(HOST) While family values were being hailed at the Republican National Convention this week, commentator Nils Daulaire attended a very different kind of gathering in London that puts Labor Day in a different light.

(Daulaire) Sex. A dangerous word for politicians. Unlike politicians, we in the sphere of public health have to deal with it. It takes place over a quarter of a billion times a day, resulting in over half a million new pregnancies every day.

It is an enormous part of the global health picture. Three and a half million people will die this year as a consequence of unsafe, and often unwanted, sex resulting in pregnancy or AIDS, or both.

And, of course, most often the victims will be poor women living in the world’s poorest countries.

Ten years ago this very week, the world community met to address this vast challenge at a global conference in Cairo, Egypt. Government delegations from 179 countries, UN agencies, and thousands of women’s groups and NGOs spent a week hashing out ways to put women’s health and women’s rights at the center of the global agenda.

I was there as an official of the U.S. government. At that conference, the United States served as a bridge between constituencies as diverse as women of the developing world, northern feminists, Islamic fundamentalists and the Vatican. The impossible was achieved: an international agreement accepted by virtually every country on earth that proclaimed the basic principles of sexual and reproductive health and rights. That said to women: You are not chattel.

Why rights? some asked. Why not just stick to health?

It’s quite simple: If something is not a right, then it’s acceptable for some to get it – usually the rich – and others not to. As we have seen over the past half century, privilege often belongs to a narrowing affluent few, but rights grow to encompass everyone.

The essential reproductive right is the right of each woman to decide when and how many children she will bear. The essential sexual right is the right to say no, to make the act of sex voluntary and willing. Too many women still lack these rights and too many men are threatened by them.

The Cairo consensus began to change that. The plan was for a UN meeting a decade later to assess progress and decide on next steps.

That decade is now up, but it won’t happen this year, because now the U.S. government has broken sharply with its history and commitments. Now, the US has joined with religious fundamentalists trying to roll back threats to men’s control over conjugal relations. Now it’s up to concerned global citizens to work on keeping things on track, which is what seven hundred of us did at an unofficial global conference this week in London.

For over one million women worldwide, this weekend will quite literally be their Labor Day. For most it will be a happy day, but tragically more than three thousand of them will die in labor. Almost all will be poor women in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and many will die from pregnancies that they did not wish, and would have avoided if they could.

Meanwhile the United States government has cut support for family planning worldwide and has challenged the value of condoms to prevent AIDS. Is this really what we mean when we talk about family values?

This is Nils Daulaire.

Dr. Nils Daulaire is President of the Global Health Council, headquartered in White River Junction. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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