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The Manila Times
Rep. Edcel C. Lagman’s
Weekly Thursday Column

First of 2 parts

THE issues of population, poverty, reproductive health, and sustainable human development are so closely interconnected that none of them can be considered in isolation.

Almost 20 years ago in 2002, then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan maintained that “the eradication of extreme poverty and hunger cannot be achieved if population and reproductive health issues are not addressed.  In order to address these issues, we must work to further promote women’s rights and invest in education and health, including reproductive health and family planning.”

Perforce, it is imperative that the crucial concerns of population and sustainable human development are incorporated into policymaking.

Way back in 1994, the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) illustrated in clear, broad strokes the inescapable linkage between the sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) of women and sustainable human development.

But few are aware that a Filipino actually antedated the ICPD and Mr. Anan in coming to the conclusion on the crucial nexus between population and human development.

Long before the ICPD acknowledged the interrelatedness of population, poverty, and progress, and recognized that government efforts to eradicate poverty would not succeed if population issues were ignored and reproductive health concerns were not met, there was a Filipino visionary who had been saying exactly the same proposition half a century ago.

Rafael Montinola Salas, the first executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and who held the position for almost 20 years until his untimely death in 1987, emphasized that “there are crucial links between population and development and [there is] need to take population factors into account in development plans.”

Salas, who was known worldwide as “Mr. Population”, to no small measure, inspired the enactment by the Philippine Congress in 2012 of the Reproductive Health Act (RH law) which is a comprehensive and model statute on SRHR. The RH law is an exposition of Salas’ paradigm on the indivisible connection between population and sustainable human development.

This pioneering law in a predominantly Catholic nation is health-oriented, human rights-based and sustainable development-driven. It recognizes the inalienable right of couples, particularly women, to freely determine the number and spacing of their children. It mandates the State to give universal access to family planning information, services and commodities to voluntary acceptors and for free to marginalized and impoverished sectors.

The principal figures in the RH Law are the mothers and their infants, and the core principle is freedom of informed choice.

It must be emphasized, as I did all throughout the 13 long years it took to pass the RH Law, that neither the State nor the Church has the right to compel citizens or the faithful to adopt or reject family planning, including the regular and proper use of contraceptives. The choice belongs to the people.

Once fully and faithfully implemented, the RH law will herald the country’s full development as resources are primed to maximize social and economic services and infrastructure growth, because funds are liberated from the current mounting expenditures on maternal and infant mortality and morbidity, life-threatening pregnancies and abortions, adolescent pregnancies, and sexually transmitted diseases, as well as the increasing budgetary demands of a runaway population.

But the RH Law is only the initial step as population and development encompass more than just reproductive health. Rafael Salas’ call to action to countries worldwide way back in the early 1980s was clear and definitive: “A population policy is a long-range strategic weapon; its effects are felt not immediately but a generation hence. To be effective, it must be launched now.”

In 2015, all member States of the United Nations adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Human Development which is a veritable template for the realization of the common dream of all human beings of lasting peace and genuine prosperity.

The essence of the 2030 Agenda is distilled in the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which include, among others, no poverty, zero hunger, gender equality, decent work for all, good health and wellbeing, climate action, and responsible consumption and production.

It will be recalled that the SDGs have succeeded the Millennium Development Goals or the MDGs, which was a global effort in 2000 to overcome crippling poverty and extreme hunger, reduce maternal and infant mortality, expand the coverage of primary education, prevent deadly diseases, and other primary development priorities in poor and developing nations.

Unlike the MDGs, the SDGs include even First World nations and are envisioned to take full advantage of the momentum generated and gains achieved by the MDGs. It is a blueprint for all nations to help achieve more inclusive progress, genuine human development, and peaceful and thriving communities even as concrete steps are taken to ensure the protection of our planet.

The anti-poverty targets set by the MDGs were programmed to have been achieved by 2015. As the target date approached, it was clear that the Philippines, like other developing and poor countries, was struggling to achieve some of the goals, particularly on improving maternal health, reducing child mortality, and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

Definitely, so much more had to be done to achieve all the MDGs. Even though the Philippines lacked material time and adequate resources, it has also made significant progress. But now with the lessons learned and the best practices acquired in working to attain the MDGs, the Philippines can capitalize on its modest triumphs and learn from its mistakes in realizing the SDGs.

At the forefront of the desired initiatives and enabling efforts are the legislators in the Congress who must enact policies which truly integrate population issues to the sustainable human development agenda. The Philippines must lead in heeding this prescription which was first pronounced by a pioneering Filipino.

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