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Aids expert to head UN initiative

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has appointed former Nigerian health minister Babatunde Osotimehin to head the United Nations Population Fund, which supports programmes in more than 150 countries that promote sexual and reproductive health and family planning.

Dr Osotimehin, a 61-year-old medical doctor and Aids expert, is the first African to head the agency, known as UNFPA.

The 1994 UN population conference in Cairo changed UNFPA'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.

As the world's population edges toward seven billion people, up from 2.5 billion in 1950, UNFPA is the main international agency working to improve reproductive and sexual health services and secure family planning supplies. It supports countries in using population data to develop policies and programmes to ensure that every pregnancy is wanted and every birth is safe.

George W Bush's administration had cut off money to UNFPA because of claims, denied by the agency, that it supported forced abortions and sterilisations in China. Barack Obama's government reversed the policy and renewed funding for the agency.

Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation and a former US senator, said Dr Osotimehin's appointment "comes at a critical time for women and girls across the globe".

"More than 215 million women around the globe want to determine the number, spacing and timing of their children, but lack access to reproductive health and family planning options," he said. "Poor women and adolescent girls in developing countries tend to be disproportionally denied access to these services."

Mr Wirth said Dr Osotimehin "has championed reproductive health and rights" and will have the opportunity to significantly advance a key goal of the 1994 population conference - to ensure universal access to reproductive health services.

Dr Osotimehin succeeds Thoraya Ahmed Obaid of Saudi Arabia, an expert on women's issues who cracked a glass ceiling for women in the Arab world's most conservative nation. She has been the fund's executive director since 2001.

UN officials said the Nigerian was the top choice of many governments and non-governmental organisations working on population issues.

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