10 July 2008, 10:30 hrs
UNMIT Headquarters, Obrigado Barracks, Dili, Timor-Leste
The following is a near-verbatim transcript of a press conference by Sr. Jose Reis Magno, National Director for Community Health at the Ministry of Health, Dr. Hernando Agudelo, UNFPA Representative, and Mr Louis Gentile, Representative of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Spokesperson Allison Cooper: Good morning. Tomorrow is World Population Day (WPD) and there are a number of events organized to bring attention to the issue of family planning which is the theme of this year’s World Population Day.
Jose Reis Magno: In 1989, the Security Council approved 11 July as the international day to commemorate WPD. We have activities planned tomorrow in Timor-Leste to raise awareness of the right of people to plan their families. The main message will be the well-being of the family and the recognition of family planning as a human right. The objective of this theme is so that future generations will not forget that this is a human right. Because this year’s theme is Family Planning, the Ministry of Health will be leading the celebrations.
Why is family planning important? Because it has a great impact on the health of mothers and children. It also helps parents decided on the number of children they will have, how to space their children and impacts on children’s mortality. Family planning will also improve gender equality. When a woman can plan her family, she can plan for the well-being of her entire family. Information from family planning can be given individually or to spouses. Family planning is also a program to help reduce poverty. Parents can make plans, utilise resources to give the best education and health care for their children.
Studies conducted in 2004, including the 2004 census, have shown that Timor-Leste has a fertility rate of 7.8 children per woman. This is incredibly high and has led to a great annual population increase. The maternal mortality rate is also very high. The need to minimise the maternal mortality rate was recognised as a national priority by the Council of Ministers.
This initiative is being supported by UNFPA, mid-wives, nurses and doctors around the country who deliver family planning services in hospitals and health centres all through Timor-Leste. We want to increase the confidence of families to access these services to improve their lives.
Hernando Agudelo: Allow me to reinforce the words spoken by Sr. Magno. UNFPA has being providing support to the Ministry of Health (MOH) as per its mandate. One of the main targets of this is to ensure reproductive health and family planning services for all the population. Being a new country, Timor-Leste is a high priority country for UNFPA to support the Ministry in providing reproductive health and family planning services. Several activities have been carried out since UNFPA began to work in the country in 2002. These include the development of the national reproductive health policy, and the national family planning policy.
The family planning policy was officially endorsed by the Government in 2004. Today, the Government is providing family planning services nation-wide in every singly facility around the country. The level of service depends on the type of facility, be they hospitals or clinics or health posts. UNFPA has also entered into an agreement with Caritas to promote family planning by natural methods. This is an agreement between the MOH, UNFPA and Caritas and is endorsed by the Bishop of Dili and the Catholic Church in Timor-Leste. The MOH is also providing artificial methods in all facilities round the country.
There are several reasons why it is important to invest in family planning. Timor-Leste has the highest fertility rate in the world at 7.8 children per woman. On average, women in TL are having between 8-10 children. With the work the MOH has been doing to promote contraceptives, the prevalence of contraceptive use around the country has increased. In 2004, the rate of contraceptive use was approximately 7%; today, including natural methods, it is 19.8%. Modern methods alone account for 13%.
Another issue is that the mortality rate is the second highest in Asia after Afghanistan. The government has thus understood the importance of investing in family planning in order to reduce maternal mortality, to reduce fertility and to reduce and infant mortality. If there are fewer pregnancies, there will be less women dying from pregnancies. Also, fewer children will allow mothers to provide the best care for their kids. Having fewer children will also allow women the time to pursue other important activities in their livers, such as employment, which can help to reduce poverty in their family.
Another important benefit of family planning is the positive impact it has on the natural environment. The more people there is, the more schools are needed, the more water, electricity, food ect. are required to meet minimum living standards. And this does not just impact at the family-level, it’s at the country-level and the Government has to cope with it with the resources that are available. And it will be impossible for a Government to ensure good development in a country without taking into account how the population is growing. This is the reason why family planning is such an important matter for the Government. It is also the reason why the Government will be celebrating World Population Day tomorrow.
Louis Gentile: I’ll just make three brief points. First, to explain what is the right to family planning. Secondly to explain where this right comes from in international law and finally, why the right is so important in the context of Timor-Leste. The right to family planning has three core elements: First, to be able to decide freely how many children one wishes to have. Second, the right to decide the amount time between children. Third, and very importantly, the right of woman and men to have equal access to family planking services so that they can realize that planning.
We’ve already heard that the Government along with civil society and UNFPA are doing their best to ensure that these rights are accessible in Timor-Leste. Where does the right come from? First, we start from the 60th anniversary of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights which is the mother and father of all subsequent human rights. So 40 years ago, the countries of the world got together in Tehran, Iran and said specifically that all people have the right to determine the number of children and the spacing of their children. Just under 30 years ago in the Convention Against all Forms of Discrimination Against Women in Article 12 – the right to family planning and access to family planning services was codified in international law which was subsequently ratified by Timor-Leste.
To sum up again why it’s so important that in Timor-Leste this right be realized- those of us who work in the field of human rights often focus on such things as the right not to be tortured, or subjected to arbitrary arrest as our focus. But all of the fundamental social and economic rights are also extremely important for the development of this country, including the right to health care, education, social services, to have all the fundamental conditions contained and codified in the international instruments.
Without family planning and a lower fertility rate, the reality is that Timor-Leste will be condemned to a cycle of poverty which will mean a realization of none of these fundamental economic and social rights- this is the harsh reality and this is why the right is so important.
Spokesperson Allison Cooper: Are there any questions?
Q: What kind of support has UNFPA given to the Timor-Leste and what are the Ministry of Health’s programs to raise awareness of family planning in rural areas?
Sr. Jose Reis Magno: UNFPA has been supporting the MOH financially, with technical support and with training on health service providers on how to implement programs. They have been supporting both the district and national levels of Government. Thirteen focal points, 249 midwives and 10 nurses have been trained on family planning services. Regarding the second question, of course the concept of family planning is difficult to understand. To help this, there are counseling services in all health centers around the country to help families understand what family planning is and why it is important.
Allison Cooper: Thank you everyone. That concludes the press conference.