Vol. 5 Num 698 Wed. May 17, 2006  
Front Page

Population programme a serious challenge
UNFPA executive director tells The Daily Star

Higher maternal mortality is a shame on any government in a country and it is an indicator showing the gap between the rich and poor countries as well as the situation within a country, observed UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid.

"Bangladesh is moving forward but facing serious challenges in population programme. Around 14,000 Bangladeshi women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, she said in an exclusive interview with The Daily Star yesterday.

While progress has been made to reduce maternal deaths in Bangladesh, much more remains to be done to save lives and achieve the millennium development goals (MDGs), Thoraya said.

The UNFPA chief thought Bangladesh would not be able to reach the MDGs if human and financial resources and institutions are not put in place. "However, we are hopeful that Bangladesh can do it with a big push," she added.

In the context of South Asia, Bangladesh is doing better than some of its neighbouring countries, she pointed out.

Thoraya heads UNFPA, the world's largest multilateral source of population assistance, since January1in 2001 with the rank of under-secretary general of the United Nations. She is the first Saudi Arabian to head a UN agency.

She said, "I don't think there is a lack of resources in Bangladesh. It is a country attractive to many donors and money is flowing in. What is important is how this money is used. It is very important that funds that are coming are used effectively, efficiently and with accountability."

Thoraya came to Bangladesh from Japan, which is a donor for UNFPA. "Japan asked me how we are spending the money they gave us for using in different countries including Bangladesh."

Lauding Bangladesh's success in certain areas, particularly girls' education, she said education will change the quality of a girl's life and her family.

Experience and studies around the world show that when women and girls are empowered through education, and especially secondary education, and have access to health services and employment, they become the driving force in social and economic development, she mentioned.

One of the strategies of girls' education, particularly secondary schooling, is to reduce the incidence of early marriage and pregnancy, Thoraya stressed. Early marriage deprives girls of their childhood as well as education needed to build their future.

Bangladesh does not have a very good primary healthcare system, which means basic health services, she said.

"You cannot improve maternal health if you don't have services available. Healthcare system will not be working very well if there are not enough trained human resources. It is the money, people and the institutions...We need all three together to improve the maternal healthcare facilities."

She mentioned that UNFPA is working with the Bangladesh government and its development partners to improve safe motherhood. "This means we are working to improve access to family planning, skilled attendants at birth and modern obstetric care. You should not have maternal death if you have these three in place."

Asked whether Islam permits family planning, which is a major issue in the rural areas of Bangladesh, she said a form of natural family planning is there in Islam.

Thoraya went on, "Principle of family planning is there in Islam. But the most important thing is that we do deliver the information correctly."

Thoraya Ahmed Obaid