Jan Eliasson

Jan Eliasson was appointed Deputy Secretary-General of the United Nations in July 2012. He served as Special Envoy of the UN Secretary-General for Darfur in 2007-2008, and prior to this, was President of the 60th session of the UN General Assembly. He was Sweden’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2000-2005, and was appointed Foreign Minister of Sweden until the elections in Fall 2006. Ambassador Eliasson was the first UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and was involved in operations in Africa and the Balkans. Prior to his appointment as Deputy-Secretary General, Eliasson also served as Chair if Water Aid/Sweden and as a member of the UN Secretary-General’s Advocacy Group of the Millennium Development Goals.

I grew up in a working-class family in Gothenburg, Sweden. Many people today look at Sweden and think it is one of the richest countries in the world, but seventy years ago, we were one of the poorest countries in Europe. I did not see my first indoor bathroom until age ten. My aunt died of tuberculosis. Life was not easy.

My mother had only four years of school, my father just seven, yet they instilled in me a deep respect for knowledge. My father was a labor union leader, and at the end of the day, around the kitchen table, my brother and I were part of the frank discussions my parents had about the issues they were fighting for.

Today, 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in poor countries. In Sweden, one in three hundred children die before their fifth birthday. In Sierra Leone, the figure is one in three.

As things in Sweden improved and my studies broadened, I got the opportunity to be an exchange student in the United States, in Indiana. I remember vividly the ten-day ocean crossing from Amsterdam to New York; there were twenty-two nationalities onboard, and my eyes were quickly opened to what a big world we live in. I remember listening to quarrelling  Greeks and Turks, and I made suggestions to help them work out their problems. Someone said to me, “You should work at the United Nations!”

Over the years, I have worked as an emergency relief coordinator and mediator for the UN in several conflicts  in Africa. In this capacity, I have had direct exposure to a reality of life and death that enforces my commitment to the cause of reproductive health and family planning for women. Most recently, I have been in Darfur, during drought and conflict.

On one trip, when we arrived in a village in Darfur, we were met by a group of women chanting: “Water, water, water.” The enemy militia had poisoned their well. They had to walk miles to get to water – not  poisoned but hardly drinkable. The children had grey skin, suffering terribly from dysentery, dehydration. Some were dying.

On another trip, I met girls who lived in terror of sexual violence on their way to gather water. They told me of friends who had been raped while carrying out this most mundane yet vital of tasks. And because of the lack of sanitation facilities in the village, they had missed still more school while they were menstruating.

And it was in the Horn of Africa that I saw young girls – around thirteen years old, still children – who were pregnant. I met married women dying from HIV/AIDS. I met women who had been raped, and who were desperate about giving birth to a child from a soldier from the opposing side. These were women and children for whom reproductive health care and family planning was a very distant reality.

After I got back from Darfur in 2008, I established WaterAid Sweden. I began to focus my work on linking issues of water and sanitation with health as well as to conflict.

It is clear that a lack of family planning – and the resulting population growth – puts great pressures on resources and nature. Sixty percent of humanity will be living in cities in the next eight to ten years. Sanitation programs and family planning are in the enlightened self-interest of nations.

Yet the reality remains daunting. Despite the proven effectiveness of reproductive health services, they remain out of reach for far too many, like the chanting women I met in Darfur. Today, 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in poor countries. In Sweden, one in three hundred children die before their fifth birthday. In Sierra Leone, the figure is one in three.

These issues intersect with a major political, economic, and moral imperative of our times – ensuring gender equality. When women have choices they can change their lives and those of their communities.

In terms of family planning, it is more productive to focus on contraception programs. Abortion is a sensitive issue in most societies. Even in Sweden, one of the most liberal in the world, it is a difficult topic. It makes most sense to me to focus on family planning, which starts with education. Women who have education, and then employment, will be more likely to embrace family planning. Women who cannot plan their pregnancies cannot plan their lives.

I see progress on water issues, but I see great problems in sanitation. Toilets are more of a taboo than clean drinking water. But if we expand access to clean drinking water, then maternal health will improve dramatically. A great number of women are dying in childbirth because of lack of clean water.

It is imperative that we take the drama out of this debate. The issue of reproductive health, unfortunately, is often surrounded by taboos or political tensions. But as I see it, the discussion of reproductive health should be hands-on and down-to-earth. We must see the issue for what it is – separate from taboos and politics.

I think back to the faces of the women in Darfur, the hungry children, the girls who fear sexual violence in the most basic of tasks, bringing water for their families. It is my job – our job – to show a light for these women and children. It is our job to stand up for reproductive health and place the human being in the center of our work.