World Population Day 2007

In Azerbaijan 19 women have died in childbirth since the beginning of this year and the maternal mortality figures have grown steadily during the last five years. Around the world, every minute, another woman dies in childbirth and 20 or more experience serious complications, according to alarming statistics. Every minute, the loss of a mother shatters another family and threatens the well-being of surviving children. Maternal death and disability rates mirror the huge discrepancies that exist between the haves and the have-nots, both within and between the countries of the world.

These shocking facts were highlighted at a roundtable discussion organized by the Office of the Commissioner of Human Rights of the Republic of Azerbaijan, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the UN Department of Public Information (UN DPI) on the occasion of 11 July - World Population Day.

This year's theme for the Day, "Men as Partners in Maternal Health", comes at the midpoint of the 15-year period set for achieving the Millennium Development Goals, one of which is to improve maternal health. It is now clear that the target of reducing maternal deaths by 75 per cent by 2015 will not be met without the concerted efforts of all those involved. Men - as partners, fathers, husbands, brothers, policy makers and community and religious leaders - have a critical role to play in safeguarding the maternal health of women.

A number of issues including early marriages, selective abortions, intermarriage between relatives, and a growing concern over AIDS were discussed during the roundtable which brought together the representatives of the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, the State Statistics Committee, the World Health Organisation (WHO), various non-government organisations and media representatives.

Ms. Elmira Suleymanova, the Commissioner for Human Rights (Ombudsman) of the Republic of Azerbaijan, opened the discussion by presenting an overview of global population and development issues which were relevant to Azerbaijan. She noted that "most of these problems can be prevented" if adequate measures are taken by conducting public awareness campaigns and speaking openly about them with the active participation of all strata of the society.

Mr. Farid Babayev, Assistant Representative of UNFPA in Azerbaijan, highlighted various activities that are supported by the UNFPA and some achievements that have been gained in the country. "But we should admit that there are still serious problems" he added, referring to the latest maternal and infant mortality figures in Azerbaijan. Mr. Babayev noted that maternal health is not simply a health problem, it is driven by a combination of social factors, including inequality and ignorance. He stressed that there should be a common strategy in tackling the problem as well as in collecting data about the current situation.

Reminding everyone of the devastating statistics on maternal death, Ms.  Envera Selimovic, UN DPI Representative in the UN Office in Azerbaijan, pointed out that one of the many causes for this shocking reality lies in deeply rooted gender inequities. "Men's involvement and participation can make all the difference in breaking the silence and bettering women's lives" she added, citing examples such as providing support, sharing rights and responsibilities in pregnancy and parenthood, and learning about family planning and other aspects of reproductive health. "Whenever we hear about these statistics, we think it is somewhere far away from us," said Ms. Selimovic, 'but unfortunately, if it is happening to somebody, it can happen to anybody, more often than we think."

Expressing the hope that this event will be a catalyst to drum up support for population concerns and raise public awareness about the problem, she finished her remarks with an appeal from the Secretary-General on the occasion: "Let us all encourage men to become partners and agents for change".

"Reproductive health begins with gender equality", said Ms. Malahat Hasanova, Member of Parliament and the Parliamentary Commission on social issues. Referring to the principles of the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, and the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing, she praised the work done by the Government of Azerbaijan. However, she also pointed out the shortcomings of the current legislative basis of gender equality in Azerbaijan, as well as various obstacles that are hampering necessary changes in both men's and women's knowledge, attitudes and behaviour.

Mr. Rza Allahverdiyev, representing the State Statistics Committee, informed the audience about some interesting figures from the "Women and Men in Azerbaijan" annual fact book issued by the Committee. He noted that they are constantly working on improving this statistical publication; for example, a new section with the results of surveys on domestic violence will be incorporated into this year's issue. "We don't claim that these figures are perfectly reflecting the reality, but these numbers can be used as excellent reference points for development".

Ms. Hagigat Gadirova, Director of the AIDS Centre of the Ministry of Health, shed some light on the fact that AIDS in Azerbaijan is on the rise. Within the last six months, 151 new cases of people living with HIV have been registered, out of 1115 total. The problem is compounded by human trafficking and the increase of Azerbaijani citizens who get infected while working abroad temporarily. In Russia for example, nearly 300 citizens of Azerbaijan were registered as AIDS-infected in 2006.

Bringing these issues to the forefront, Ms. Gadirova also mentioned a recent story about a teenage girl who has reportedly infected a number of men in Azerbaijan with AIDS. She noted that this story, while bringing the AIDS problem to the headlines, also showed that despite its many efforts, society is not prepared to face this global problem. "The AIDS pandemic is a reminder that not only do women need the power to protect their health, but there is an equally urgent need for changes in male behaviour to prevent its further spread." While acknowledging the importance of raising public awareness of the issue, Ms. Gadirova also addressed the alarming tendency for stigmatization towards people living with HIV. "They are one of us, someone's son or daughter, and we should respect their rights and try to help them."

Among other obstacles, there is currently a lack of appropriate education in most of the schools around the country and as a result, most people are ignorant of the problems. Ms. Gulnara Rzayeva, representing the Institute of Obstetrics and Genecology, suggested that the most effective strategy would be to incorporate sexual education into the school curriculum as compulsory classes rather than as a facultative subject. "Everything begins with the youth, therefore when the problems are acknowledged among them and dealt with at the beginning, half the battle will be won", added Ms. Rzayeva.

Ms. Kamilla Dadasheva, the president of "Symmetry" Gender Association, noted that the active involvement and participation of men in promoting and increasing maternal health may also discourage early marriage; promote girls education; contribute to gender equality; and support reproductive health, as well as the reproductive rights of women. Moving to the AIDS topic, Ms. Dadasheva pointed out public concerns regarding rising prostitution, especially amongst the younger generation. All of these troubling reports could be prevented if the youth are provided with a basic sexual education.

Following the speeches, a dynamic discussion took place in which the participants actively exchanged their ideas about various issues, such as possible ways of improving legislative system, organising a more effective system to promote maternal health in the regions, and the role of the media in tackling these problems. In summing up the round table discussion, it was suggested that all participants and their respective organizations should pay an instrumental role in encouraging discussion and raising the awareness of women and men about reproductive health activities. Various agencies/institutions, depending on their mandate, can organise seminars and trainings, disseminate print materials about legislative aspects of the problem, support the establishment of free medical service for mothers and infants, boost the improvement of social protection for young families, regularly monitor the situation in maternity hospitals, discuss the problems and send proposals for additions and changes in corresponding laws to appropriate bodies, and prepare joint programmes wherever applicable.

The event's theme attracted a large audience and had broad media coverage. Correspondents from almost all of the nation-wide TV channels, news agencies and print media participated in the event and widely reported on it. The UN Secretary-General's message was also quoted on various occasions by different media outlets:

"As partners for maternal health, men can save lives. They play a decisive role in many respects. Husbands often make decisions about family planning and the use of household resources that influence the well-being and prospect of the whole family. The support of an informed husband improves pregnancy and childbirth outcomes and can mean the difference between life and death in cases of complications, when women need immediate medical care. Supportive fathers can play an important role in the love, care and nurturance of their children."

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