Sima Bahous: Remarks on the Occasion of the Regional Conference on Population and Development Beyond 2014

Jun 25, 2013

Opening Remarks of Sima Bahous,
Assistant Secretary-General,
Assistant Administrator and
Director of Regional Bureau for Arab States, United Nations Development Programme
Chair, Arab States / Middle East and North Africa Regional
United Nations Development Group

Regional UNDG Statement
on the Occasion of the
Regional Conference on Population and Development Beyond 2014: Development Challenges and Population Dynamics in a Changing Arab Region

League of Arab States Headquarters
Cairo, Egypt

25 June, 2013

Your Excellency, Dr. Mohamed Moustafa, Minister of Health, Arab Republic of Egypt, representing HE the Prime Minister Dr. Hisham Qandil

Your Excellency, Dr. Nabil AlAraby, Secretary General, League of Arab States

Your Excellency, Dr. Rima Khalaf Hunaidy, Under-Secretary-General and Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia.

Your Excellency, Dr. Asan Diop, Special Advisor to the Executive Secretary of the United Nations Social Commission for Africa.

Your Excellency, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of the United Nations Population Fund.

Distinguished Delegates,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to thank the speakers before me for their opening remarks and the organizers for giving me the opportunity to address you at this special conference. I would also like to thank them all for their unwavering support for the implementation of the ICPD Programme of Action and for sustainable human development in general.

Nearly 20 years ago, here in Cairo, a light of hope was sparked for the millions of women and youth around the world who face injustice, discrimination, inequality or violence.

Today we ask ourselves: does that light still shine here in the Arab World?

We ask this question for many reasons.

  • First because it is a matter of basic human rights and human security. Every person should enjoy their rights with no dilution and enjoy personal dignity and security with no compromise. This basic fact is cherished by all world cultures including the many that have sprung forth from our own lands.
  • Second because it is a matter of human development. It is no secret that people in the Arab world aspire for tangible development: decent jobs, better and more equitable access to services, and relief from the indignities of poverty and the injustice of illness and the diminished horizons of incomplete education. Empowering women is the best way to reverse our stagnation and revive our progress.
  • Third because the status of women is the measure of a nation. A truly developed and truly dignified nation, cannot be one in which more than half of the population is marginalized. A nation that is stable and that is strong is one that is built by all people, working as individuals and as communities to build a better future for all.  A nation that is strong, is one that leaves no one behind!

Four years ago at the 2009 review of the IPCD, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon surveyed the cause of women’s empowerment worldwide and pointed out that for many people, “the Cairo Consensus remains more of a goal than a reality.”

And indeed as we survey the state of women and youth in this region today we see that the same description applies.

  • Women and girls have made excellent progress in access to education, but lag behind their sisters in other regions in terms of participation in economic and political life.
  • Harmful practices such as Female Genital Mutilation and Child Marriage still persist in some of our countries.
  • Maternal Mortality Rates remain stubbornly high in some countries.
  • Women face violence in times of war and times of peace.
  • And women face harassment, even on the streets of our most revered cities.

As goes for women, so comes for youth. In this region we know well that youth are the key to our future, but just as women face many obstacles to their progress, youth – both young men and young women – too often face challenges that rob them of their potential:

  • Education systems that fail to create skills and aptitudes needed for the world we live in;
  • Economies that don’t create enough jobs, and create even fewer secure and decent jobs;
  • Governance approaches that close off opportunities for civic engagement;
  • Social codes that exclude young people who do not benefit from the best connections, or the wasta, as we say.

As a result, in contrast to the experience of East Asian countries, for example, which relied on educating and training young people to drive a transformative economic boom, in the Arab World today we see too many of our young people are:

  • Standing with idle hands, trapped in informal jobs, or heading for distant shores in search of opportunity;
  • Longing to start a family but lacking the means to move responsibly through the most cherished rites of passage; and
  • Waiting for a fleeting chance to fulfil their potential – and too often waiting in vain.

Then we ask again: does that light of hope still shine?

We know well that social change does not occur overnight. Many societies around the world have struggled to achieve different equality and guaranteed rights amongst their populations. They have struggled to unite peoples of different faiths or ethnicities; they have labored to bring fairness to all women as to all men; they have endeavored to transition from an economy of the few to an economy of the many; they have exerted themselves to empower the disenfranchised.

History shows us that this struggle takes time.

And our time is coming in the Arab region.

Indeed when we look at this region we must be aware that progress is being achieved.

When our elders think back to their school days they remember schoolhouses filled only with boys. This is not the case today. 

When people think back to the composition of our governing bodies a few decades ago, they remember a system exclusively open to men – older men. This is not so today.

The fact is, today Arab women and youth are achieving in every area of life. Arab women are doctors and lawyers. Entrepreneurs. Artists and musicians. Teachers and media professionals. Women and girls, across this region are gaining momentum.

Arab youth are plugged into the world. They are contributing more every day to a brighter future. Taking their destinies in their own hands, sharing their values, creating jobs for themselves and others, opening up new opportunities for national development. They want more than ever to contribute to the building of strong societies.

Indeed, step by step, Arab women and Arab youth are moving towards the light — even when it seems so distant.

At the United Nations Development Group it is our mandate to support these processes, to assist our country and regional partners to address the needs of youth and women, to enable all citizens to achieve their potential and contribute to the strength of their nations.

That’s why UN Agencies, Funds and Programmes across the Arab world work with national partners to improve access to health, rights, and the freedom to make informed choices.  We serve in situations of crisis to relieve suffering, save lives and lay the groundwork for early recovery and long-term sustainable human development. And we support in transition and reforming countries to foster stronger engagement of all stakeholders in the decisions that affect the future of this region.

These investments on behalf of women and young people are in everybody’s interest and are everyone’s responsibility. There really can be no peace, no prosperity, and no progress without the full and equal participation of women and youth. There will be no democracy when rights are denied, when opportunities are curtailed and when voices are silenced. And the time to act is now. The region is changing and stakeholders across the region have an unprecedented opportunity to move towards a brighter future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Over the last year as the United Nations Development Group we have also undertaken a special exercise to consult with people across the world and the region to find out what they want for their future.

The purpose is of this effort is to generate input for Member States to consider as they shape the next global development framework to build upon the Millennium Development Goals after 2015.

Over 10,000 people have participated either through online forums, national consultations or regional consultations. And their messages are clear:  They want a stronger voice in defining their futures, they require a stronger role in translating goals into reality, and they demand an equitable enjoyment of rights for every man, every woman, and every young person who calls this region home.

This is not to suggest that all voices are saying exactly the same thing. Certainly there is a diversity of views feeding into the Post-2015 discussion.

Indeed, in those discussions we have been given many chances to appreciate that differences exist.

But we must not allow differences in perspective to derail us from discussion of issues of profound importance to humanity.

In this spirit, as we are here in the Arab World, and here in Egypt, with the League of Arab States and participating in a United Nations meeting, it is appropriate for me to refer to the words of the Arab and Egyptian scholar and former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Boutros-Boutros Ghali.

In his opening speech at the ICPD, in 1994, this leader reminded the delegates that delicate questions surround the issues that are discussed in these halls.

But he urged them to push forward constructively on behalf of all humanity.

He suggested that delegates follow three basic principles in their deliberations: rigor, tolerance and conscience.

  • Rigor, both to the facts and to the accuracy of analysis.
  • Tolerance, to the sensitivities that may be expressed during discussions.
  • And conscience, to know ourselves as we are, to know of our own freedom of judgement and of the right of all women and men to lead and run their lives as they see fit.

Such freedom of decision, he said, is a basic right which must be protected and encouraged. Otherwise, it is the world’s poorest people who would suffer the direct consequences.

I am sure that we can agree that those noble principles still apply, and in particular in our countries. I trust that you will join me in embracing them here and in other policy discussions we all engage in on behalf of our Arab region and our common humanity.

When we work together by these great principles, when we work together on behalf of the most vulnerable, our efforts will preserve the light of hope for a better future for our citizens and our region as a whole.

I am pleased to reaffirm my own commitment and that of the Regional UNDG to the Cairo Programme of Action. Let us work together to accelerate progress towards a more equitable and sustainable world.

I wish you every success. Thank you.


22 February 2012 - United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced the appointment of Sima Sami Bahous of Jordan as Assistant Administrator and Director of the Regional Bureau for Arab States at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

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