Countering ICPD25: Kenya’s President Steers Clear of Contentious Issues in His Address

Kenya's President Uhuru Kenyatta addressing delegates at the International Conference on Population and Development ICPD25 in Nairobi during the official opening on November 12, 2019
Credit: Public Domain

The widely publicized and controversial International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD25) convened to commemorate 25 years since the last convention took place in Egypt’s capital, Cairo kicked off Tuesday, November 12 in Nairobi, Kenya amid resistance from religious leaders and other civil society groups.

Organized by the Governments of Kenya and Denmark, and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), ICPD25 has been described as “one of the biggest conferences to be held in Africa.”

In his speech at the official opening of the conference taking place at Kenyatta International Convention Center (KICC) in Nairobi, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta steered clear of controversial and divisive issues around the Summit.

Instead, President Kenyatta focused on issues consistent with what the Holy See desired ICPD25 delegates could discuss, among them, “women and children living in extreme poverty … strategies for development, literacy and education … ending violence against women, and ensuring access to employment,” among other issues that seem respectful of religious tenets and African values.

President Kenyatta, a Catholic, has faced pressure in days leading to ICPD25 from various religious organizations and other civil society entities who have expressed strong reservations about the meeting and presented to the President petitions signed by thousands of their respective followers.

The Vatican and the African Union (AU) have also made known their concerns, the former declining to take part in the Summit. A parallel conference to counter ICPD25 was organized by members of the Kenya Christian Professionals’ Forum (KCPF).

The concerns revolve around the draft text termed “Nairobi Statement” which is expected to guide the meeting and that seems to shift the strategic focus of the Summit from population and development matters to issues relating to abortion and sexuality rights, including lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI).

In particular, the Nairobi Summit is being guided by five themes, the first theme giving a hint to the controversial and divisive issue with its focus on “universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights as part of universal health coverage.”

At the beginning of his address, President Kenyatta acknowledged the presence of thousands of delegates “from over 100 countries, dozens of international organizations, over 200 civil society groups, and many leaders from the private sector.”

He outlined the purpose of the conference saying ICPD25 delegates gathered “to celebrate progress made in the last 25 years; and to make a new commitment to complete the unfinished agenda.”

Focusing on the details of the meeting, he spoke about gaps to be filled, progress that has been made over the years, and what needs to be done going forward.

President Kenyatta highlighted the dignity of women and girls among the gaps that ICPD25 delegates need to focus their attention.

“Most important participants in this Summit are actually not in this conference,” Kenya’s President said and explained, “I am referring to the 1-in-5 women from all corners of the world that this year alone, will experience gender-based violence, most likely from someone who is close to them. The 800 women and girls who die every day during pregnancy or childbirth; and the 4 million girls who, every year, have to endure the painful and traumatic effects of Female Genital Mutilation.”

The President also highlighted early marriages of girls and unemployment among the youth as issues that need to preoccupy ICPD25 delegates including seeking solutions for “the more than 33,000 girls who are married off every day before the age of 18.”

On gains made in the last 25 years, President Kenyatta highlighted efforts toward poverty reduction, decreasing illiteracy levels, and lowering maternal mortality.

“Today, nearly one billion fewer people are living in extreme poverty than in 1990 and life expectancy at birth has increased by about seven years,” President Kenyatta told ICPD25 delegates and added, “Primary school education is accessible to most children in the world and the global maternal mortality rate has fallen by about 45 percent.”

Going forward, Kenya’s President said, countries will need to package their respective priorities “depending on their development priorities.”

However, the President highlighted some collective commitments, among them, aiming toward increased “access to secondary and tertiary education for boys and girls”; accelerated “reduction in maternal deaths”; elimination of “Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) which remains one of the most serious violations of human rights of women and girls.”

He also encouraged ICPD25 delegates to deliberate on ways of eliminating violence targeting women and girls explaining, “A woman has a 1-in-3 chance of experiencing physical or sexual violence in her lifetime. This is a major gap in our development record as a global community.”

Encouraging commitment toward eliminating marriages of underage girls, President Kenyatta took note of some progress saying, “The percentage of young women between 20 and 24 years of age who were married before their 18th birthday has declined from 34 percent in 1994 to 25 per cent in 2019.”

However, the President disclosed, “the absolute number of girls under 18 who are at risk of child marriage, is estimated at 10.3 million in 2019.”

“I also believe that we can commit to accelerate women’s equal participation and equitable representation at all levels of the political, public and corporate sphere,” President Kenyatta said and added, “global analyses suggest that advances in women’s equality in the workplace would add an additional $12 trillion to global growth by 2025.”

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