By Kim Cheong-won
Promoting equality for women will help solve the low birthrate, poverty and other socio-economic problems, a United National Population Fund (UNFPA) official said Wednesday.
``If we want to address many of the challenges that the world faces today including poverty, we have to address the issue of the equality of women,’’ Steve Kraus, chief of the HIV/AIDS branch of the UNFPA, said in an exclusive interview with The Korea Times.
``When we benefit women in a just and free society, all of society benefits. When we suppress women, society looses,’’ he said.
Kraus is visiting the country to raise awareness on gender equality and other population-related issues upon releasing the U.N. World Population 2005 report.
``You can’t have economic growth if society is poor. You can’t have social growth if half of society is suppressed. So equality and progress for women is progress for all,’’ he added.
South Korea is facing a drastic drop in the birthrate that hit a record low of 1.16 in 2004.
The figure is the lowest level of members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that have long been struggling with chronically low fertility rates.
This year, the rate rose slightly to 1.22, according to the UNFPA’s report.
The 50-year-old American said that the low birthrate is a worldwide issue.
``Low birthrates right now are not an issue unique to Korea. In many countries, law birthrates are a concern. But I think the good news is that countries who are concerned about low birthrates have been able to cope with the problem well,’’ he said.
He used France as an example. He said France has been able to increase its fertility rate from 1.6 to 1.86 this year by providing services to women, including free health care service and daycare support.
``Economic incentives also play a great role in increasing the number of children. By reaching out to women and helping them address their concerns, countries can raise their fertility rate if they wish to,’’ he added.
He pointed out, however, that providing social infrastructure is not enough to solve the problem.
``It is the right of every women to decide if and when she wishes to have children. It is a responsibility and the right every women and couple to decide how many children they want, and when they want the children,’’ he said.
``When you have human rights, women and men will make a good decision. In the absence of human rights, equality and equity, nations will always face challenges,’’ he added.
Virapong Skolkitivat, chairman of the Senate Standing Committee on Public Health in Thailand, also echoed the importance of gender equality in addressing many challenges the world faces, including HIV/AIDS.
He said that improving women’s role in society and strengthening the public health care system contributed to lessening the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Thailand.
``The issue has been the main headache of the Thailand government. But the strong leadership and open-minded attitude of the government in handling the situation helped a lot to address the problem,’’ the 65-year-old senator said.
According to him, about 58,000 people died of AIDS in 2003 and an estimated 570,000 live with HIV/AIDS as of 2003.
But through improved public health services, the situation is getting better, he said.
``Public health services are now available in all 9,689 sub districts through a total of 69,331 community public health care centers. And we see the results, now,’’ he added.
The senator also stressed the role of the media in dealing with AIDS.
``You can create media that makes people afraid and scared of it. Or you can create media that allows people to understand, to tolerate, to accept and not to discriminate against people living with HIV/AIDS,’’ he said.
``In an environment with discrimination against those people, you push people who need services underground, which makes problem worse,’’ he added.
When asked about the long-term goal of the UNFPA, Kraus mentioned four things.
``We want to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every birth is safe, every young person is free of HIV/AIDS, and every girl and woman is treated with dignity and respect,’’ he said.