Reproductive Health

Global Maternal Health Gets 2nd Big Checkup

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A second major global gathering on women's maternal health wrapped up in Washington, D.C., June 9. Participants celebrated progress and a huge new funding infusion and focused pressure on the G-8 summit in Canada later this month.

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Abortion Study in the Conference Bag

The sidestepping of abortion was noted in some media reports, but Jill Sheffield, founder of Women Deliver, told Women's eNews that a report by the Guttmacher Institute, the New York-based research group, on abortion was purposely included in the conference bags for all attendees.

"The answer is that access to safe services when women need them is really really important. The Guttmacher report was in the conference bag because we need to find a common ground to talk about this and do something about it, and I think the way that is going to happen is through evidence, and their documents are full of evidence," she said.

The conference brought together some 80 parliamentarians from various countries, nearly 50 ministers of different kinds and the first ladies of several African nations.

Sheffield has hoped first lady Michelle Obama would play a role. "We need all the political power we can get," she said.

While the conference looked outward, to other parts of the globe, maternal mortality remains a significant problem in its host country.

Amnesty International reported that two women die every day in the United States from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

"I think the U.S. was shocked by what they read and the fact that we are one of the few Northern industrialized relatively rich countries where maternal mortality is going up, at least in pockets it's going up," said Sheffield.

Countdown 2015, an initiative of governments, international agencies and others working toward the MDGs, released a report at the conference tracking 68 developing countries where over 95 percent of maternal and newborn deaths occur. It found pockets of progress but concluded that most countries are not on course to meet the goal of MDG5, which aims to cut maternal deaths by 75 percent from 1990 to 2015 and achieve universal access to reproductive health.

Some Good News

Women Deliver 2010 opening plenaryThe good news included countries like Mozambique and Malawi, where over 90 percent of C-sections in rural areas are now performed by trained surgical technicians. In Nepal, where unsafe abortions had contributed to a soaring maternal mortality rate, liberalization of the country's abortion law in 2002 helped cut in half maternal mortality. In Sri Lanka, a concerted government effort has cut maternal mortality to one of the lowest rates in the developing world.

However, the Countdown report found that overall funding for family planning programs has declined over the past two decades. In addition, it said Africa alone needs 1.5 million more health workers if mothers and children are going to receive the care they need to survive.

Conference participants repeatedly referred to the need to customize programs based on cultural differences among countries.

"Every culture has a stew and its different ingredients," said Sheffield. "We need to honor their preferences and how they respond to different things."

Sheffield said Women Deliver was timed to build momentum for the G-8 summit in Canada later this month, followed by the meeting this summer of African heads of state and the U.N. General Assembly in September.

"Everybody agrees that women have been delivering for the world and now it's time for the world to step up to the plate and deliver for women," she said.

"The value of the conference is reemphasizing for everybody that safe motherhood is a fundamental human right," said Dr. Pamela Lynam, who came to the conference from Kenya, where she is the country director for Jhpiego, an international health organization affiliated with Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "If every woman in the world only had children when she wanted to, we'd have a whole new world. That's the kind of revolution we need."

Linda Kramer is a Washington-based reporter and professor of journalism at Georgetown University.

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