PRESS CONFERENCE BY UN POPULATION FUND
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) this morning presented Miss Universe, Lara Dutta, as its Goodwill Ambassador to India at a Headquarters press conference.
Ms. Dutta was introduced by UNFPA Deputy Executive Director Kerstin Trone, who told correspondents Ms Dutta had wide experience as an activist and educator on issues concerning women and youth. Before her formal appointment today, she had been an active participant in UNFPA's “Face to Face” campaign, an international effort to increase global awareness of women's rights, especially access to reproductive health and family planning services. The campaign publicized the plight of millions of women and young people denied basic human rights taken for granted in developed countries.
"Ms. Dutta's drive and determination, as much as her fame as Miss Universe, enabled her to reach young people and talk to them about the need to seek reproductive health guidance, counselling and services so that they can make informed decisions", said Ms. Trone. Adolescents were not only the parents of tomorrow; they were also the parents today. Young people were vulnerable to unwanted pregnancy, HIV/AIDS and many other threats to their health and well- being.
Twenty-two years old, Ms. Dutta had been a role model from an early age,
Ms. Trone said. The youngest of three children, Ms. Dutta received the highest score on the English section of her high school national board exams. She received a degree in economics from Bombay University, with communications as her minor. As her fame as a model increased, Ms. Dutta travelled throughout India to raise awareness about the risks of irresponsible sex and other reproductive and sexual health issues affecting young people, especially women.
Since becoming Miss Universe in May 2000, Ms. Dutta had used her title to further her work for young people on a much wider scale, Ms. Trone continued. In the last year, she had been travelling the world to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS education.
UNFPA Spokesman Abubakar Dungus told correspondents that Ms. Dutta had just returned from a trip to India where she visited projects in poor suburban areas from Calcutta to Bombay. Following the recent earthquake in India, Ms. Dutta had also filmed a public service announcement sponsored by the Fund, that would be aired in the United States and other countries.
Ms. Dutta told correspondents that as Miss Universe she had the opportunity to represent the Indian woman and to be the voice for those whose voices were not strong enough to be heard by the global community. During the last 10 months of her reign as Miss Universe, she had travelled to over 40 countries on behalf of the Miss Universe official cause -- raising awareness of HIV/AIDS worldwide. She had spoken to many youth groups and universities on the subject and had targeted youth in her speaking engagements. While she would be the reigning Miss Universe for only another couple of months, she would be a Goodwill Ambassador to the UNFPA for the rest of her life, Ms. Dutta said. "I think that is a great honour for me", she said.
From the time she had entered high school, she had travelled throughout India, educating her peers about the dangers of unprotected sex and raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, Ms. Dutta said. She had recently participated in her first effort for the Face to Face campaign. She had visited a woman's empowerment programme in West Bengal, a centre that sheltered street children in Calcutta and a sex worker's counselling centre in Bombay.
She had met "face to face" with battered women, with children who had been sexually abused and who were living on the streets, as well as with the wonderful people that have dedicated their lives to helping them, she said. Understanding the working environment of the workers who went into the slums every day had had an important impact on her. She had realized how difficult it would be to do that every day. Also, she had realized not only how much had been achieved, but also how much needed to be done.
While education and access to information gave young men and women the power to make life-saving decisions, a lack of information destroyed lives, Ms. Dutta said. Figures could highlight the importance of the situation. Some 500,000 women died each year of pregnancy-related causes. Fifteen times that number suffered from injury or infection. Some 2 million girls between the ages of five and fifteen were introduced into prostitution every year. About two thirds of illiterate adults in the world were women and two thirds of children not enrolled in primary education were girls. While women earned 10 per cent of the world's income, they owned only 1 per cent of the world's land.
"I think education is really important and is the key", Ms. Dutta said. The most important initiative of all was to educate youth. She had moderated a town hall meeting in Bombay last month and had spoken with adolescents on issues ranging from their sexual and reproductive health to relationships and marriage. Youth were the greatest organizers and could mobilize a community into action. It was important to allow them to voice their questions and to provide access to the right information.
"We need to help them", she added. Ms. Dutta intended to work closely with UNFPA's Face to Face Campaign for Women and to raise awareness on the reproductive and sexual health-care needs of adolescents worldwide. She also looked forward to establishing her own foundation in India that would work towards adolescent sexual and reproductive health services, especially in rural areas.
The collaboration between the Miss Universe Organization and the UNFPA was wonderful, she said. "As much as Miss Universe provides you with the glamour, the glitz and high-flying events, UNFPA did a really good job of keeping your feet firmly planted on the ground and keeping you in touch with reality", she said.
The UNFPA supported many programmes which ensured that reproductive health information, counselling and services were accessible to adolescents, Ms. Trone said. The Fund worked with governments, non-governmental organizations and medical professionals and supported a number of youth-oriented programmes at centres around the world. The centres, which were run mostly by volunteers, used drama, sports and cultural events and telephone hotlines to promote reproductive health issues, including HIV prevention.
What did Ms. Dutta think being Goodwill Ambassador could achieve for India? a correspondent asked. The tendency was not to give a 22-year-old beauty queen --
she preferred to call herself a "title holder" -- much credit, she said. Unless her work proved that she could handle the job she had been given, nothing she could say was going to change how certain people viewed a beauty pageant or title holder.
Concerning India, she would probably have the greatest impact on adolescents, Ms. Dutta said. That was the age group she had targeted most. More change would come from them than from people 35 years old and above. Youth often educated their parents. Her visit to India had been an educational experience. Swapping ideas with other people her own age had been incredible. With the media attention she received as Miss Universe, she was able to focus attention on issues requiring urgent action.
Ms. Dutta said that while she was Miss Universe in the year 2000, in the year 2010 she could be dead because of AIDS. In India, one member of every family would be HIV positive by 2010. That was a pretty scary scenario. People lacked access to information and formal education. They did not know what choices were available to them. On the other hand, many people with formal education often had a feeling of invincibility. "The approach I have to these things is that if I am susceptible to it, you are just about as susceptible as I am", she said.
As the area hardest hit by HIV/AIDS, much focus had rightly been on sub-Saharan Africa, Ms. Dutta said. However, by the time that situation came under control, India and South-East Asia would be just as badly affected, unless the country woke up and started helping itself.
When Lara visited a village outside Calcutta, 400 to 500 villagers came to see her, Walter Coddington, Director of the Face to Face Campaign said. Lara quickly turned centre stage over to the women who were leading the UNFPA project in that village. It was an incredible opportunity for local workers to share what they were doing and what was going on. Lara's visit had meant so much to local people and would have residual effects over time.
Ms. Trone said that the UNFPA was dealing with sensitive issues that were difficult for everybody to discuss. Adults did not often discuss sexual behaviour. Youth might talk about it, but because of a lack of communication, myths and misunderstandings had developed. It was very important to get the facts right and to get rid of the misunderstandings. Youth responded best to other young people. Young people very rarely listened to adults. And adults were very rarely equipped to talk to youth about such issues.
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