The U.N. General Assembly, in a special 20th anniversary session, is to assess implementation of the 1994 Cairo conference plan which had been hoped would slow the global population explosion. Heads of government will be summoned in September 2014 to review what was seen in Cairo as a forward-looking plan, adopted by 180 nations including Canada, one that focused on birth control, economic development and giving women more power over their lives.

Since Cairo however, the world’s population has grown from 5.7 billion to over 7 billion. Last month, the U.N.’s top population official, Babatunde Osotimehin, said the world is on course to add a billion more people within a decade, further straining the planet’s resources. There will be no final document from the 2014 session in order to avoid divisive negotiations on issues such as reproductive rights for women, sex education, abortion and family planning.

Cairo changed the UN’s focus from numerical targets to promoting choices for individual women and men, and supporting economic development and education for girls. Underlying the shift was research showing that educated women have smaller families. Cairo also recognized for the first time the need for a comprehensive approach to control rapid population growth and broke the taboo on discussing sexuality, adolescent sexual behaviour and the real concerns of women and families.

At the heart of the Cairo conference action plan was the demand for gender equality through education, access to modern birth control, and the right to choose if and when to become pregnant. The only reservation was that this should accord with national laws, religion and culture. Cairo also recognized that abortion is widely practised around the world and should be treated as a major public health issue and that affordable, accessible contraception is central to achieving safe motherhood.