THE EARTH TIMES
DECEMBER 25, 1995– JAN 14, 1995
A CONVERSATION WITH INGAR BRUEGGEMANN
‘When social taboos prevent discussion of sexuality, that is not fair to young people’
BY ASHALI VARMA
Ingar Brueggermann of Germany is off to a nawing start as the new Secretary General of
the International Planned Parenthood Federation. The London-based organization is pursuing its vision 2000, an ambitious, comprehensive reproductive health program for women youth.
Brueggermann worked for nearly two decades with the UN’s World Health Organization on family planning, public health and international coordination. Following are excerpts from a recent conversation at her London office:
What is the main focus of your work as the new head of IPPF?
Our focus is expressed in “Vision 2000,” which means providing young people—and I stress that this includes boys as well as girls–with the information and resources to make clear-cut choices of their own regarding reproductive health.
Many people think reproductive health involves only the specifics of having babies, but we sec our work in a larger context: the entire period of our life span during which we are sexual entities.
We have to reach young people, because their sexual life starts long before they are ready to start a family.
We feel very strongly that young people have a right to know unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted diseases. Social taboos have prevented discussion of our sexuality, and that is not fair to young people.
Society must recognize the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancy and unsafe abortion. Half a million women die every year from pregnancy-related causes, and at least half of those deaths, by a conservative estimate, result from unsafe abortion.
Many thousands more women suffer consequences like infertility, infection and psychological trauma. IPPF is taking on quite a large package, and this a tremendous challenge.
Our priority is to reach those who currently have no access to reproductive health services.
Do you believe that the international community has a serious commitment to the action programs adopted at the UN population conference in Cairo and women’s summit in Beijing?
Our organization has pushed hard for women’s empowerment and free choice, and this work was 100 percent confirmed in Cairo and Beijing. But implementation is not only a task for women. The brave, angry women who brought these issues to the fore must he recognized, but the problems are now on the global and governmental agendas.
If I were to answer you as a pessimist, I would say that there is not a serious, political commitment. Governments that were still trying to digest the promises they made in Cairo were soon making more promises in Beijing. There was a certain anxiety about how to react to all of these identified priorities. But the agendas set at these meetings, and at the earlier conferences in Rio (on the environment) and Vienna (human rights), form a
spectrum of where development has to go. The issues are all closely interrelated, and that makes me more optimistic. The challenge is to find a good synthesis among these various demands so that governments feel confident in providing the resources. I would like to see agencies like IPPF work hard now on making good suggestions.
How do you relate population issues to those other priorities for development?
Family planning cannot be separated from the need for a sustainable environment, for human rights and women rights. But there is a difficulty if we talk about it simply in global terms. We tend to see it as a “macro” program, and do not yet fully grasp that the solution lies at the “micro” level, with the individual. Men and women must be able to decide to have just two or three children with the confidence that their sons and daughters will survive. They need assurance that disease will not take the children away, and that their own social security is not dependent on having a large number of offspring.
Once governments recognize the correlation between “micro” action and “macro” effect, I don’t think there can be any reluctance to invest in reproductive health, which has such a long-term impact. If you look at societies that have a high G.N.P., you see that their birth rates are going down, In the West, there is sometimes the view that “there is no way you can convince ‘those people.”’ But this , is a very false understanding of how “they” think. Another unfortunate interpretation is that people who want to enable women
to make a free choice are not really “prolife.”
What can be done to correct such misinterpretations?
This is where I believe the media have a tremendous role to play. It is particularly sad that we seem to act more quickly when we feel threatened than when we get good advice on how to avoid a future disaster. A good example is the criticism being made of China’s family planning policies. There is no question that anything involving the coercion of people, the forcing of women, is negative. However, one has to look into the proportion of positive and negative features. Education about the balance between resources and population is gaining ground among young people in China. The government is also trying to establish a guaranteed pension for people over 60, particularly to reassure the parents of a daughter. The critics ignore those measures and refuse to make the reverse equation: What would it be like if China did not have a family policy. If there is a famine, how many countries would lift a in finger to help? We need to learn a lot.
Our main objective at IPPF is to assist individuals in making life worthwhile, so that their children have a chance to lead a reasonab1y happy life. It has been proved scientifically that children whose births have been spaced, who are born to mothers who are neither too young nor too old have a fairer chance of being healthy and happy.
What can be done to minimize a duplication of labor among the various UN agencies, nongovernmental organizations and government institutions?
We must try even harder to establish common policies, a common concept of where we want to go. We need mechanisms for the UNFPAs, the IPPFs and the donors to sit around a table and work that out. I like to say that our work should reinforce each other, rather than overlap. Rather than all of us studying the same thing, we should agree that something has already been analyzed enough, and use the available funds to go forward with implementation.
What has been the impact of the South-South partnership initiatives, where developing countries share successful experiences with family planning programs, literacy drives and other projects to empower women?
When such efforts began some 20 years ago there was a lot of skepticism. Many people did not grasp that a expert in primary health care in rural Thailand, for example, might have something valuable to share with a counterpart in Nepal. Now, fortunately, that view has changed completely. Governments understand that there is no need to call in a highly paid expert from the North when there are qualified people right in their own countries, or in a neighboring country. My impression is that serious donors—those more interested in fostering development than in selling their own experts–are making resources available for South-South cooperation.