Press conference by UNFPA to launch 'State of World Population, 2008' report

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Launching the State of World Population, 2008 report at a Headquarters press conference this afternoon, Aminata Toure, Chief of the Culture, Gender and Human Rights Branch of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) called for a culturally sensitive approach to development and promotion of human rights, particularly the rights of women.

The report is being launched today in more than 150 cities around the world. Published since 1978, the document this year focuses on three key elements of development: culture, gender and human rights. For the third year now, the report also comes with a supplement devoted to youth-related issues, entitled "Generation of Change: Young People and Culture".

Characterizing the report as "a very exciting" document, Ms. Toure stressed that all cultures offered an opportunity to advance human rights and engrain them in the social fabrics of communities. A paradigm shift in how development assistance was provided had begun. It was necessary to take a more participatory and inclusive approach, to promote dialogue with communities and to advocate ownership of the human rights agenda. Change must happen not only from external pressure, but also from within.

"Culture is who we are, how we think, act and believe," she said, emphasizing that development agents must work with communities to look at cultural practices, norms and values, and leverage those that promoted human rights. For example, with mothers celebrated in many cultures, the sacred status of mothers could be used to promote women's health. The Fund also worked with faith-based organizations to spread the message of gender equality and advance family planning in Africa. At the same time, it was important to challenge those practices that impeded realization of human rights. For example, female genital mutilation could be very deeply rooted. To accelerate progress, it was necessary to engage communities in the efforts to stop that practice.

Culturally-sensitive approaches sought local knowledge and relationships that could provide the basis for dialogue and positive change, she said. In concrete terms, that meant using the positive language of culture to bring about change in support of human rights. In that connection, she emphasized the important role of traditional chiefs and religious leaders, who had an immense influence on people's behaviour.

In many countries, she continued, the Population Fund worked with religious leaders on population issues, including those related to HIV/AIDS and violence against women. Last month, UNFPA had organized a global forum, which was attended by 170 faith-based organizations and religious leaders from all over the world. It had also launched a global network on population and development.

Asked how the principles she had described applied to actors in the field, Ms. Toure said that two months ago, an inter-agency task force on culture had been formed, in which most of United Nations agencies participated. The task force aimed to be as inclusive as possible, because all agencies working with people on the ground needed to be culturally sensitive. "There is a global agreement among us that if you want to advance human rights, you have also to understand the context in which you operate, understand the way people think," she said. The cultural approach was not new, but it was becoming more systematic in United Nations work. Research was being carried out on social and cultural indicators, which would allow progress in that area of work.

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