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National Convention Center, Beijing

On behalf of United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), I wish to thank China’s National Health Commission for this opportunity to speak at the 2nd China-Arab States Health Cooperation Forum.  

The Arab region is home to more than 400 million people, half of them women and girls, around 100 million of them in reproductive age, with a fertility rate, 3.5 children per woman, that is higher than the global average of 2.5 children per woman (2015).  

Periodic regional reviews have documented significant progress in social development in the Arab region including discernible declines in infant, child and maternal death rates; improved reproductive health care and family planning services; improved gender parity in education; and decline in extreme poverty. 

At the same time, progress has not been even throughout the region due to socio-economic and demographic diversities between countries. Several major challenges remain. These include: high youth unemployment rates; low quality of education; lack of adequate youth-friendly reproductive health services; weak economic and political participation of women and young people; developmental disparities between urban and rural areas; and relatively high levels of gender inequality and gender based violence. For instance, maternal mortality in the Arab region is still high at 156 per 100,000 live births in 2015.  

UNFPA’s Arab States Regional Office in Cairo, supports the work of 15 country offices, covering a total of 20 countries and territories in the Arab region. UNFPA as the UN agency in charge of promoting reproductive health and rights, works with the governments and national partners in the countries to respond to reproductive health needs of women and young people, including in situations of conflicts or humanitarian emergencies. So, in Yemen, for example, where 1.1 million pregnant women are malnourished and 2.6 million women and girls risk gender-based violence, UNFPA was able to reach 438,000 people with reproductive health services in 2018, although it had planned to reach one million.  In Iraq, UNFPA was the first international organization to provide life-saving reproductive health services to women and girls displaced by the fighting into camps in new areas in Mosul. Within the Syria crisis, UNFPA continues to work in the country and in neighboring countries to save lives by supporting some 72 mobile clinics and 150 safe spaces for women and girls.

Given China’s increasingly prominent role in international development cooperation, particularly through South-South Cooperation, UNFPA is well-positioned to facilitate China’s maternal health-focused humanitarian assistance to conflict or natural disaster-impacted countries in the Arab region. Such cooperation can help to save lives of millions of women and children and to re-build their future.   

Another key health and development issue for the Arab states is the youthfulness of the region with one third of the population under 15 years of age, and youth aged 15-24 years which increased in size from 49 million in 1995 to 70 million in 2015 representing almost one-fifth. 

Accelerated economic growth and social progress can accrue to a country when a large group of young people enters the labor force, provided they are healthy, educated, skilled, productive and empowered. This phenomenon referred to as the first demographic dividend can be a critical pathway for the development of any country. 

China is the most populous country that has successfully harnessed the first demographic dividend. During the four decades of China’s opening up and reform since 1978, the country has made significant social and economic progress and become the world’s second largest economy where investments made in health, education and employment opportunities for younger generations paid off. For some Arab countries that are going through the stage of demographic transition characterized by a growing youthful population, many lessons can be learned from China’s experience.    

Fortunately, in line with Chinese President Xi Jinping's view of youth as "the hope of a country and the future of a nation", China-led Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) includes youth exchanges and education as well as investment in transport, energy and communications infrastructure as means of contributing to the overall development of participating countries. In the case of Arab States, China actively promotes China-Arab youth communications and enhanced exchanges between departments of youth affairs and young elites from all walks of life.  

Nonetheless, much more attention still needs to be given to how young people more actively participate in and benefit from China-Arab States health cooperation under the BRI, for a resilient, healthy and productively engaged young generation is the foundation for any country's stability and prosperity.  If the Belt and Road Initiative is to be highly impactful in participating Arab states, its associated investments must generate outcomes that afford the majority of young people in the region the information and services to guarantee their healthy development, and the opportunities and capacities to lead and participate in the national development process, ultimately benefiting their own future.

In particular, in the spirit of the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development of "leaving no one behind", it must especially impact positively on the life chances of disadvantaged young people such as those living with disabilities, and those displaced or on the move due to violent conflicts, natural disasters, or economic destitution.

UNFPA supports China’s increasing role in international development cooperation to assist other developing countries in achieving the SDGs within the contexts of their national priorities and needs. This explains why UNFPA has actively engaged with the Government of China and Chinese partners to promote the South-South and Triangular cooperation in the area of health, particularly focusing on improving maternal and youth health. We look forward to future opportunities to facilitate mutually beneficial, demand-driven South–South initiatives between China and Arab states that have sustainable impact on poverty reduction and improved health and well-being of women and young people.

I thank you for your kind attention.