Here, Björn Andersson describes his many years of working for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR), gender equality and women’s rights. He is head of the UNFPA’s operations in Asia and the Pacific.
In 1994, the countries of the world adopted the Cairo Programme of Action on population and development. It was a pioneering document that made sexual and reproductive health and rights issues a priority in international development cooperation and also gave them more political visibility.
I had the honour of taking part in the Cairo conference in 1994. As a Swedish Junior Professional Officer in Zimbabwe with the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I worked closely with our partners in Zimbabwe’s government and was almost a fully fledged member of their delegation to the conference. At the time of the conference, I didn’t realise how important it was for women’s rights and the right of young people to sexual and reproductive health. And I don’t think many people did. But with hindsight it proved to be one of the most important UN conferences of the 1990s.
For many years, I worked at UNFPA headquarters in New York and saw first-hand the work being done by UNFPA to ensure that SRHR became one of the Millennium Development Goals. As Sweden’s head negotiator for the Rio+20 conference, I worked patiently with my colleagues to ensure that references to SRHR were included. And we succeeded. This, in turn, paved the way for significant mentions of SRHR in the 2030 Agenda and the Sustainable Development Goals.
Since September 2017, I have been posted in Bangkok as Regional Director for UNFPA’s operations in Asia and the Pacific. I have more than 20 UNFPA representatives who regularly report to me on the progress (and setbacks) we are experiencing in guaranteeing the right to sexual and reproductive health in the region.
In the autumn I visited Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. UNFPA supports activities concerning maternity care and women’s houses that assist women and girls who have been subjected to sexual violence. Having direct contact with these women made a deep impression on me, and I became even more motivated to continue working on SRHR, gender equality and women’s rights. We must never give up on these rights. People must have control over their own bodies, feel safe regardless of the situation and have the opportunity to create a good life for themselves.
As always, change takes time, but during my professional life I have seen with my own eyes the difference UNFPA makes in countries and how Sweden, as the largest donor to the organisation, is influencing developments in the right direction.
Written by Björn Andersson