Protest in Taksim Square, 2013
Protest in Taksim Square, 2013
Last updated: September 28, 2015

New move by Islamic countries to improve women’s health – but more needs to be done

Banner Icon Islamic countries committed to strengthen women’s health - a key component of it being sexual and reproductive health and rights of adolescent girls and young women - during a meeting at the United Nations headquarters on September 26.

Ahead of the annual General Assembly, they pledged to commit to the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health. It is a blueprint to mitigate preventable deaths for women and children by 2030.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon launched the initiative at the Sustainable Development Goal summit in 2010. The Islamic Development Bank is one of the donors.

“It sends a very strong message that Middle Eastern countries are discussing (this issue) among their peers and learning from each other,” said Nana Kuo, Senior Manager at the U.N. Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child Initiative on September 27, during a gathering organized by the U.N. Foundation.

For instance, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan plans to increase the use of contraception from 15% to 60% as part of its public spending on health by 2020.

Public health and development experts found that taking care of women and children is the cornerstone of a healthy society. Nevertheless, this is a challenge in most Muslim societies as sexual education for non-married adolescents, especially female, remains a taboo. The prevalence of religious laws, namely Islamic legislation, has hindered women and girls’ sexual and reproductive health.

Yemen, for example, has the highest rate of maternal deaths in the Middle East, according to its National Population Council. 

Over two third of Yemeni women give birth without the supervision of a medical specialist. Only a quarter of women bring their child into life in a hospital or a clinic, thereby exposing them to great risk.

Yet, with rapid population growth, Islamic countries are increasingly being aware of the importance of proper sexual education and family planning. Pakistan’s not-for-profit Aman Foundation spent US$5 million in 2012 to boost family planning programs in Karachi, for example.

Improving girls and women’s health is a crucial issue in a region - Middle East and North Africa - where about one in three people is aged 15 to 29 -  or more than 100 million people, according to recent research by the Brookings Institution.

This is the highest proportion of youngsters to adults in the history of the region.


Nina Schwalbe, Principal Adviser on Health at UNICEF, explains that, in fact, there is not any significant resistance to family planning and reproductive health programs in conservative countries, namely in the Arab world and Africa.

“The type of medicine we are doing is not rocket science: it’s about training people in communities to meet the needs of residents in these communities. This is a strategy that works,” she said during a U.N Foundation meeting on September 27.

What matters is that people within the community deliver reproductive health care - not external medical professionals - which would be a huge barrier.

“The UAE has been a great partner on the work that I am doing on children and women’s health as it has strong, vocal and articulate women,” said Jordan’s Princess Sarah Zeid, a health advocate, during a gathering in New York on September 27. 

“It is a matter of leadership,” she added.

Regardless of the efforts Islamic countries made, the reality is that family planning and contraception remain a socio-cultural taboo due to deeply-rooted religious practices.

Radical Islamic organizations still resist sexual education. 

A 2010 report by local female students at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia highlighted the importance of sexual education in schools. Yet, there is still none today in this country.

Kamilia Lahrichi
Kamilia Lahrichi is a foreign correspondent based in Argentina. In March 2015, the Moroccan government awarded a merit trophy for her work as a journalist. She covers international affairs in English, French, Spanish and Arabic. She is regularly translated into Chinese. Kamilia Lahrichi is the recipient of the 2015 National Press Foundation Journalism Fellowship in Abu Dhabi and two United Nations Foundation’s Press Fellowship in 2014 in New York City. Prior to that, she was an editor at Thomson Reuters in Hong Kong and she appeared on Radio Television Hong Kong to analyze Middle Eastern affairs.
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