Speech by Mr. Arthur Erken, UNFPA Representative in Viet Nam at the Second National Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health

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Date: Tuesday, 11 November 2014
Event: The Second National Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health
Venue: Melia Hotel, Ha Noi

Dr. Nguyen Viet Tien, Vice Minister of Health;
Dr. Luu Thi Hong, Director of Department for Maternal and Child Health, MOH;
Dr. Nguyen Van Tan, Acting General Director of GOPFP, MOH;
Dr. Bui Thu Ha, Dean of Ha Noi School of Public Health,
Mr. Jeffery Kobza, WHO Representative
Representatives from the MOH, Government Agencies, Hospitals, Research Institutes, and the international and local development partners,
UN colleagues and media,

Good morning ladies and gentlemen,
I am honored to be here today on behalf of the UNFPA in Viet Nam to address to you in the opening ceremony of the Second National Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health. First, I would like to thank the Ministry of Health (MOH) and the Ha Noi School of Public Health for organizing this important event.

Twenty years ago, at the landmark International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo, 179 governments affirmed that population is not about numbers; it is about people. They reached consensus on a Programme of Action to transform the quality of life for all, to expand human choices, and to achieve economic growth and sustainable development. Already 20 years passed and in 2014, the ICPD Global Review Report shows that today fewer women are dying in pregnancy and childbirth, and that maternal mortality has been reduced by nearly half worldwide between 1990 and 2010.  Together with the global efforts, Viet Nam has also made considerable progress in implementing the ICPD Programme of Action in the past 20 years. In 2013, the Contraceptive Prevalence Rate was 77% and in 2010 the Maternal Mortality Ratio was 69 per 100,000 live births. With this profound progress, Viet Nam is one of just a few developing countries around the world on good track to achieve the MDG 5a by 2015. However, we still have a long way to go in realizing the vision of Cairo 1994. For instance, while Viet Nam tends to achieve the MDG5a at the national level, disparities exists as maternal mortality in 225 most remote and ethnic minority communes is still two times higher than the national average. In addition, the unmet need for contraception among unmarried young people is still three times higher than married populations. Obviously, MDG5b are unlikely to be achieved by 2015.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Sexual and reproductive health embraces all the critical phases of life from conception, birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood to old age. Everyone has the right to enjoy reproductive health, which is a basis for satisfactory intimate relationships, healthy children, and happy families. However, sexual and reproductive health problems remain the leading cause of mortality and morbidity for women of childbearing age worldwide. Millions of women, especially those living in developing countries, continue to suffer disproportionately from unintended pregnancies, maternal death and disability, sexually transmitted infections including HIV, and gender based violence and other reproductive and sexual problems.

The National Conference on Sexual and Reproductive Health is a biennial scientific and policy advocacy forum in Viet Nam. This year, the theme of the conference is “Sexual and Reproductive Health: from Evidence to Policy”. This theme is crucial in the context that Vietnam is in the process of preparing the national sustainable development agenda post 2015, and the five-year health plan for 2016-2020. This event is a great opportunity for all of us: policy makers, government officials, managers, programmers, health practitioners, and researchers to discuss the latest research findings in the field. We also hope that this conference will help us to analyze major challenges and opportunities and provide recommendations for improving policies, guidelines, programmes and interventions at both national and sub-national levels.   

Ladies and gentlemen,
In the opening of this important event, I would like to raise five critical issues:
Firstly, Viet Nam is now in the process of formulating a new Population Law. We should appeal to the government to ensure that the law is firmly based on the principles set forth in the ICPD Programme of Action and numerous human rights treaties and conventions that stipulate that "all couples and individuals have the right to decide freely and responsibly the number, spacing and timing of their children, and to have the information and means to do so". With fertility being as low as it is now, the law should focus on the human development aspects of population and development, such as the right to attain the highest standard of sexual and reproductive health, the right to make decisions concerning reproduction free from discrimination, coercion or violence, and the right to have control over and decide freely and responsibly on all matters related to their sexual and reproductive health.

Secondly, Viet Nam is a largely rural country with 90 million inhabitants from 54 different ethnic groups. One-size-fit-all policies do not work and we should make sure that the different needs of all individuals related to SRH are taken into account. Therefore, it is crucial to conduct social and operational research to improve the understandings of the cultural, social, economic and structural factors affecting women and men when accessing and utilizing SRH services.

Thirdly, I would like stress the need to improve the quality of SRH services. If you review the current data on Family Planning, you will see that the percentage of contraceptive users in Viet Nam is very high (up to 80%). However, the number of abortion cases remains very high, too. These raises an big concern on quality of family planning service as many people use family planning methods but still get unwanted pregnancies. In addition, given the declining support from development partners on reproductive health commodities, Viet Nam needs to ensure national and sub-national resources meet an increasing demand and to avoid contraceptive shortage, especially for adolescents and unmarried young people and other disadvantaged groups.

Fourthly, Viet Nam has entered a period of golden population, recording the highest proportion of young people ever in the country's history. Young people aged from 10-29 make up approximately 40 per cent of the Viet Nam’s total population. Not only are their numbers large but their sexual norms and behaviors are changing in a fast-changing society. Nevertheless, it is emphasized that the country has not had yet a reliable national SRH database on adolescents and young people, resulting in limitation in the development and monitoring of appropriate policies and programmes on SRH for young people.

Finally, this event reminds us of the important link between research and policy development. Research provides empirical evidence for development of sound policies and programmes. Better use of research-based evidence in policy and program development can help to improve people's health, save lives, reduce poverty and enhance the quality of life. It is therefore critical to strengthen the scientific evidence and the use of it for the development of health policies and programmes, especially in the SRH area. I wish that the outcomes of the today's conference will provide a great opportunity for us to map a strategic direction for SRH research priorities post 2015.

Distinguished guests,
Sexual and reproductive health and rights are vital to us and at the core of sustainability. We cannot promote sustainable development without promoting the health -especially reproductive health- and rights of women and girls, as well as the rights of young people.
UN in Viet Nam and UNFPA in particular remain fully committed to support the Government of Viet Nam to ensure that universal access to sexual and reproductive health for all becomes a reality. By joining our forces and working together, I believe no goal is too high to reach.

Let me conclude with a quote from Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the UNFPA Executive Director, in the Special Session of the UN General Assembly on the Follow-up to the Programme of Action of the ICPD in September 2014 who recently remarked: “The right to health is incontrovertible. Sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights are universal human rights. They are also central to sustainability, gender equality and the empowerment of women”.

I thank all the distinguished guests for your attention and participation, and look forward to a productive Conference and concrete recommendations for improving the SRH for the Vietnamese people in the future.

I wish you all good health, happiness and success.