The real story at the U.N. conference on population and development in Cairo this fall was the unprecedented emphasis on the empowerment of women. The international media, however, was drawn instead to criticisms of the conference generated by the Vatican and a few conservative Muslim and Roman Catholic countries.
As a result, many received the impression that the "program of action" that will serve as the guide for population policy for the next 20 years centered around abortion and other controversial matters. In reality, this was not the case at all.
At the heart of the new approach outlined in the program of action is a shift away from a quantitative emphasis on numbers of people and types of contraceptive technologies to a qualitative emphasis on the empowerment of women and improvement of the quality of life for all people. While the plan reaffirms the goal of universal access to family planning services, it places this task within the broader goals of gender equality and the elimination of all discrimination against women and girls.
Prior to arriving in Cairo, the nations of the world had already reached agreement on 90 percent of the draft program of action, which contained the bulk of the material pertaining to the empowerment of women. There was little public comment about these sections, however, because the conference delegates agreed at the outset not to revisit portions of the text upon which they had already arrived at consensus.