Monrovia — On a recent visit to Liberia, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehim, UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), paid a courtesy call on President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf at her Foreign Ministry Office, according to an Executive Mansion release.
They reviewed such issues as maternal mortality - Millennium Development Goal 5 for which UNFPA has responsibility; gender-based violence; the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons for a post-2015 development agenda; and more.
Finance Minister Amara Konneh used the occasion of the visit by the UNFPA Executive Director to present to President the final official documents of the 2008 Population Census, in hardcopy and CD formats, a project that was supported by the UN Population Fund and undertaken by the Liberia Institute of Statistics and Geo-Information Services (LISGIS).
In his conversation with President Sirleaf, Dr. Osotimehim said that there had been progress regarding maternal mortality, but more needed to be done. UNFPA had been working with the Government of Liberia in an effort to reach every woman and every girl with the appropriate information and services.
He said he was part of the Campaign against Maternal Mortality in Africa, which several countries had launched, and he sought the President's support and leadership in order to hold an event, at the next African Union Summit, in January, to operationalize this initiative. Concerning gender-based violence, and what Liberia was doing about it, he assured the President that UNFPA has zero tolerance for GBV and called for its total elimination.
Looking at President Sirleaf's role as a Co-Chair of the High-Level Panel of Eminent Persons for the post-2015 development agenda, he offered the services of UNFPA's Regional Office to provide technical support and staff time in the crafting of language to do with women's health, their access to services, their empowerment beyond health, and other issues. He added, "For us in the international system looking at development issues and issues of women, this is a great opportunity and we need to make sure that we put issues of women front and center." Given the push-back, in the last few years, even on language previously agreed, he said it was important to be more aggressive and proactive in terms of what this means for women and women's health and rights.
Again on the topic of the MDGs, the Executive Director was of the view that much had been accomplished, that the job was not yet finished, and that the international community should not abandon a system that has worked. Instead, the MDGs should be brought into a more comprehensive, more inclusive development agenda. Don't abandon the things that have worked, especially with regards to poverty, he said; poverty must still be the main driver of this effort, and women must be in the center of what we do, because "when you look at poverty and women, it's actually the same thing." Any Sustainable Development Goals or post-2015 agenda should not exclude the MDGs. On the domestic front, the Executive Director offered UNFPA's help in strengthening the government's youth program in order to positively affect the lives of young people.
Responding, President Sirleaf said she was still awaiting more recent data on maternal mortality, having been surprised to see those numbers increasing, although she believed that it had to do with better reporting. Nevertheless, she said, "it is still too high."
Even though everybody is talking about post-2015, President Sirleaf said, she didn't want the international community to take its eyes off the fact that that there were still two to three years for reaching the targets of the MDGs, adding, "and we ought to work assiduously, if not to meet the Goals, then certainly to improve upon our performance on each and every one of these Goals. There are some of the current indices that will be relevant post-2015, no matter whatever else we may introduce in the new agenda."
Domestic violence is still a problem here, the President continued - the abuse of young girls, the continuation of rape. As a result of rape and, to a certain extent, violation of young women, "our population rate scares us," with so many young kids throughout the country, she said. The government was working on the retention of girls in the primary schools, and the success there was fairly acceptable, in terms of increasing enrollment of girls and women. However, they tended to drop out by high school. There was also the problem of prostitution. She asked for examples of best practices to tackle these problems.
She welcomed support regarding the post-2015 agenda, saying that, for Africa, "it has to come out of a very robust consultative process; it must be able to get down to the grassroots level to get their views." Many at that level had not followed the MDGs or been a part of it. There was need for a change, so that, post-2015, whatever agenda evolved from that consultative process would truly reflect the priorities as perceived by a majority of the people, as opposed to technical people who sit in rooms and draft nice papers, nice theories. She added, "The success on implementation lies in the people themselves feeling like this is their program, this is their idea, this is their priority."
The President explained that the period for the report is very short, and that the Secretary-General has requested it for May, so that he can then present the agenda to the 2013 General Assembly. She said that the Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) have been identified as technical arms, but she would still need help, as she did not have the capacity or the staff to carry out all of the tasks that would be required, and she welcomed UNFPA's offer.
She was of the view that the Secretary-General recognized that the MDGs were not done, which was why he was always careful to refer to the post-2015 development agenda. She agreed that any new document would have to incorporate the current MDGs, while adding those issues that were not specifically pinpointed.
Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Minister of Health and Social Welfare, stated that some of the targets were too ambitious and were set too high for the MDGs, because some things take much longer to change. That must be looked at, going forward, he said, using his Ministry's five-year plan and roadmap for maternal health as examples. He went on to say that the maternal deaths in Liberia were mostly young girls. There were too many teenage pregnancies, and many of them tried to abort. On the issue of family planning, we agreed that very little had been done in that area, and pointed to the "droves of children" seen in virtually every village.
Dr. Osotimehim said there was a need to be very aggressive with contraception and family planning, otherwise no matter what other efforts were made for sustainable development, "if the demography is not following that pattern, whatever economic growth you have is consumed totally." In the context of Liberia, he called for understanding the things that will increase acceptance, and to pursue them. President Sirleaf urged UNFPA to undertake a more effective communications program regarding the rights of the child, retention in school - something that's simple, catchy, for radio listeners.
Dr. Osotimehim was accompanied by Ms. Esperance Fundira, UNFPA Country Representative in Liberia; and Special Assistant Saturnin Epie. Present on behalf of the government were: Dr. Edward B. McClain, Jr., Minister of State for Presidential Affairs; Hon. Amara Konneh, Minister of Finance; Dr. Walter Gwenigale, Minister of Health and Social Welfare; and Dr. Edward Liberty, Director-General, LISGIS.