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Baby Face:  Ensuring the Well-being of those who Are (and Bear) Children, Dr. Robert Zuber

8 Sep

Babies II

Remind me that the most fertile lands were built by the fires of volcanoes. Andrea Gibson

Having a baby’s sweet face so close to your own, for so long a time as it takes to nurse them, is a great tonic for a sad soul.  Erica Eisdorfer

A baby’s cry is precisely as serious as it sounds.  Jean Liedloff

For all that has been, thanks. For all that will be, yes.  Dag Hammarskjöld

Babies are such a nice way to start people.  Don Herold

A good bit of our collective energy in this part of the world was focused last week on the many miseries inflicted by Hurricane Dorian which stalled over the Bahamas before lurching towards and then away from the US (and now Canadian) East Coasts.

The potential violence and threatened frequency of such storms was not lost on a group of young people (including Greta Thunberg) who sat outside the UN in Hammarskjöld Park at mid-day Friday holding up signs and enthusiastically chanting as part of an effort to stave off the potential extinction which the rest of us are still not taking seriously enough.  The youth sat huddled as the windy arms of Dorian swept over the park, bringing both intermittent rain and modest attentiveness from the UN community and other passersby.

Before joining the youth in the park I and many colleagues had just left what was billed as a “pledging event” for candidates for election to the Human Rights Council.   All candidates (save for Venezuela) were in the Trusteeship Council Chamber to explain to their colleagues why they should be elected to this important if controversial body.   Most focused less on their current human rights performance (especially Brazil) than on their fidelity to the mechanisms through which the Council conducts its oversight and assessment, including and especially the Universal Periodic Review.   But some candidates such as Armenia and the Netherlands, but also current Security Council members Germany, Indonesia and Poland, stressed the importance of human rights to peace and security progress, merely one dimension of the “cross cutting” manner in which UN agencies and member states increasingly seek to do their business.

We couldn’t agree more with such cross-cutting interests.  As Germany noted during the session, our human rights commitments should flow from a deeper commitment to the values and responsibilities of multilateralism (more on this next week); that they should not be seen as the “hobby horse” of western societies but as an essential means of ensuring health and well-being, safety and justice for more and more of the world’s peoples.  Whether on an existential threat like climate change (stressed in this session by the Marshall Islands and Poland) or on ensuring safety and access to reproductive health for mothers and girls, the UN’s human rights agenda must continue to evolve as a web of connected concerns that binds us in mindful, practical compassion as much as in policy.

Earlier in the week the director of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), Dr. Natalia Kanem, made presentations on her agency’s work as part of a “joint executive board” session with the UN’s Development Program (UNDP) and Program Services (UNOPS).  Dr. Kanem has ably steered UNFPA through some difficult waters, having taken over in 2017 upon the sudden death of her predecessor, Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin.  One highlight of her formal presentation was when she conveyed a message by young girls to their political leaders:  “We want to stay in school, marry only when we are ready to do so, and seek and receive help from others to fulfill our dreams.”

More than other UN agencies, UNFPA remains sensitive to the “unfulfilled promises” of reproductive rights and health made 25 years ago at an international conference in Cairo:  delivering a world (as UNFPA’s mantra goes) where “every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.” But as UNFPA prepares for another major event this November in Nairobi, there is no escaping some unpleasant facts about our current world: too many exploited child brides having children they are not ready for; too many mothers without access to adequate pre-natal care before birth or adequate child care afterwards; too many babies born in less-than-sanitary conditions or conceived as the result of conflict-related sexual abuse; too many women suffering life-threatening complications from childbirth in societies that don’t prioritize their wellbeing; too many babies entering this life under discouraging conditions that could well color their educational and material prospects throughout their entire life spans.

And, as the UK noted during a UNFPA side event co-sponsored by Albania, there are too many states now in retreat regarding their commitment to reproductive health and rights, a phenomenon that is perhaps less about wishing ill health on babies and more about seeking to maintain some vestige of control over mothers and their reproductive choices, control over their educational and economic options, control over the autonomy and independence that our world badly needs to expand.

As Dr. Kanem would surely agree, we need to get over it.  We need to stop denying the links between babies being born under conditions of armed violence and other severe stresses, girls and boys whose dreams remain continually under threat, and mothers struggling to make ends meet while seeking to direct their children on a safer, healthier and more economically stable path.  As many of our societies seek to cope with an ageing demographic, and as we all seek to find a path forward towards sustainable development and climate health, we need to honor better those with the resolve to bear children in this messy world, in part by helping ensure that children are wanted, that the conditions of child birth are much less perilous, and that the entire reproductive cycle is both as empowering as possible for its participants and adequately resourced.

One of the very few positive stories emerging from Dorian was the births of several babies in Jacksonville, Florida hospitals as the storm passed by that region.   Whether or not the plunging barometric pressure associated with a massive arriving storm caused these women to go into labor, the benefits of childbirth in a modern hospital – with attending nurses, ample medicines and in the worst case scenario, a hospital built to code complete with backup generators – virtually ensured that even babies born in the midst of a hurricane were safe and (we assume) wanted.

But in too many conflict and crisis zones, in too many places of material and social deprivation, babies and their mothers have no such assurances, nor do the girls who survived their own early childhood challenges.  We desperately need healthy and hopeful children who can take their places alongside the youth now striking for climate healing and a more peaceful planet.  And we desperately need more empowered mothers who can show us – and their progeny – the way forward on political empowerment, peacebuilding and sustainable development.

We have yet to fully embrace these obligations, let alone satisfy them.  As Dr. Kanem rightly said during the UNFPA side event, “enough is enough.”   This should be the message that adorns every doorway when diplomats meet in Nairobi later this year.