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By Luay Shabaneh, UNFPA’s director for the Arab region


The Arab region, home to 346 million people, is predominantly young, as 28 percent of its population is composed of young women and men under 30 years of age. Half of the entire population is made up of women and girls, 90 million of them are in reproductive age, so can potentially get pregnant and contribute to the 3.3 children born on average to Arab women. This is considered a high fertility rate since the global average fertility rate had fallen to below 2.5 children per woman by 2015.  It is also a real social and economic burden in a region where maternal mortality is still high at 156 per 100,000 live births (in 2015), and in a region that is witnessing several acute situations of humanitarian emergencies and several countries facing political and security instability. Add to this the fact that the Arab region is a main migration corridor towards Europe, with thousands of people undergoing the perilous routes that sometimes cost them their lives in search for what they see as opportunities for survival and fulfilment.


In 2017, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund is proud to have taken part in efforts that led to the adoption, in Tunisia, of a comprehensive law against all forms of violence against women.  In Egypt, UNFPA contributed to ensuring the criminalization of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) in the Egyptian penal code. In Lebanon, we worked closely with civil society groups on the abolishment of the infamous “marry-your-rapist law”, shortly after the same law was scrapped in Jordan.  All these policy changes are successes for human rights in general and for women’s rights in particular. They are the building blocks of more egalitarian societies and a step in the direction of reducing discrimination against women.

But improved laws do not always mean improved practices, especially where practices are harmful and deeply rooted in communities and societies. Criminalizing FGM can only be effective if community leaders themselves declare that such a crime is no longer tolerated and that anyone who perpetuates the practice will be shunned by the community and reported to the authorities. We therefore value the fact that, until the end of 2017, 172 communities have declared the abandonment of this harmful practice in the 5 Arab countries where FGM is prevalent (Egypt, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Djibouti).

As a year draws to its close, UNFPA cannot but reiterate that at the heart of any sound population policy lies the fundamental concept of gender equality and women’s rights. As the UN agency in charge of promoting reproductive health and rights, UNFPA works in 20 Arab countries to respond to the reproductive health needs of people, including in situations of conflicts or humanitarian emergencies.  In Yemen for example, where 1.1 million pregnant women are malnourished and 2.6 million women and girls risk gender-based violence, the difficulty of access has affected our ability to respond to these huge needs. Nevertheless, we were able to reach 438,000 people with reproductive health services, although we had planned to reach one million.  In Iraq, UNFPA was the first organization providing lifesaving reproductive health services to women and girls displaced by the fighting into camps in new areas in Mosul. On the Syria crisis, we continue to work in the country and in neighboring countries with women and young men and women to save lives but also to give young people information and opportunities to grow healthy and empowered.


We now will focus our efforts on meeting the needs of women who want to decide the number and spacing of their pregnancies so that they can have access to family planning. We will  support healthcare providers and medical institutions so that pregnant women can access adequate medical services during their pregnancy and during delivery. This will greatly reduce maternal mortality, something that should not be happening in the 21st century anymore.


A woman who can plan her fertility has more professional options and is able to choose what suits her situation best. Where women participate in the labour force at high rates, the resulting trends have been towards lower fertility; whereas in high fertility countries, a woman’s ability to get better education and join the labor force  remains low. As a human rights-based organisation, UNFPA engages with governments, civil society and fellow UN agencies to ensure that people, adolescents and older persons included, have access to sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights. It conducts field research to enable it to present credible recommendations on how to promote gender equality and change norms. It advocates for the right of young women and men to receive information, skills and opportunities that will enable them to achieve their potential.