Anika Rahman

(WOMENSENEWS)–On the heels of a major maternal mortality conference in London last month and a heightened international focus on women’s health issues this year, foreign governments and large foundations are marshalling greater funding commitments for maternal health initiatives.

The U.N. Population Fund, for instance, picked up more than $200 million in new commitments over five years from the United Kingdom at last month’s Women Deliver conference, which drew participants from 109 countries to harness support and resources to improve the health of women and infants. Since 2004, the U.K. has allocated more than $40 million per year to the fund.

Contributions to the U.N. Population Fund are voluntarily allocated at the discretion of 180 U.N. member nations. The fund received $269 million in contributions in 2001, $389 million in 2006 and projects contributions of $411 million in 2007.

The money is flowing into an organization that since 2002 has been shunned by the administration of George W. Bush. The White House withholds funding via a policy loophole that had its genesis in 1985 during the presidency of Ronald Reagan. Congress passed an amendment giving the president discretion to withhold funding from any group or agency involved in coercive abortion or sterilization. Since then, GOP administrations and the U.N. Population Fund have battled over whether the U.N. agency matches that description.

The White House has refused to release funding for the agency that was appropriated by Congress. The amount withheld now totals $204 million, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development; $34 million has been authorized in funding each year since 2002.

The withheld U.S. funding since 2002 would have allowed the U.N. Population Fund to prevent 244,000 maternal deaths, help 68 million women delay pregnancy and prevent 2.4 million women from suffering adverse health effects during pregnancy and childbirth, said Anika Rahman, president of New York-based Americans for UNFPA. The group formed in 1998 to generate support for the U.N. agency and help cushion the effects of the U.S. de-funding

Online Citizen Connections

At the same time as other nations and foundations are increasing donations, private citizens are being encouraged to support the U.N. Population Fund through a new Web service designed to assist Western women in relating more directly to the agency’s mission.

Developed by the advocacy group Americans for UNFPA, the Web service Lifelines allows a user to enter information about her schooling, work, relationships and children with the idea that women around the world can begin to compare their common experiences.

For example, when a 45-year-old married woman in the United States logs on to Lifelines to check on her statistical counterpart in Uganda, she will find some stark contrasts. She marrried at age 39 to someone she chose and had 17 years of education, starting at age 5, as well as paid work starting in high school. Her counterpart has not attended school or ever worked outside her home. She is married and will have been chosen by her husband. She had her first of 10 children at age 18.

“When we see the reality of women’s lives around the world, we begin to see the role each of us can take to make a difference,” said Rahman of Americans for UNFPA.

Another new online tool to better connect Westerners to the developing world is the MDG Monitor Web site, launched Nov. 1 by the United Nations along with technology giants Google, based in Mountain View, Calif., and Cisco, in San Jose, Calif.

The site uses data to track progress in meeting the U.N. millennium development goals, established by international leaders in 2000 to eradicate global poverty by 2015. Improving women’s status is a keystone of the targets. Visitors can quickly check global comparison of data that include maternal mortality rates and girl-boy ratios of school enrollments. A Google Earth map locates ongoing projects to improve women’s health, pulling up information with a click on the map.

Criticism Linked to China

The Bush administration contends that because the U.N. Population Fund provides financial and technical resources to China’s National Population and Family Planning Commission, it supports the Chinese government’s program of coercive abortion and involuntary sterilization.

Sarah Craven, chief of the Washington office of the U.N. Population Fund, says the agency’s program in China promotes a voluntary approach to family planning and does not fund coercive abortions. Last year, the agency spent $3.69 million in China.

Abortions declined by 18 percent between 2003 and 2005 in the counties in China where the U.N. Population Fund worked, according to a study by the Southampton Statistical Sciences Research Institute at the University of Southampton in England and other groups.

At least 200 million women worldwide lack access to the contraceptives they desire in order to plan their families or space their children, according to the U.N. Population Fund. The agency also says reproductive health conditions are the leading cause of death and illness among women of childbearing age, with one woman dying every minute due to lack of adequate care during pregnancy and childbirth.

The agency works in 154 nations providing maternal and reproductive health services, distributing contraceptives, implementing HIV-AIDS prevention services and advocating for women’s rights and gender equality. Demand for family planning services is expected to increase by 40 percent over the next 15 years.

Maternal Health Pledges

Other major donors who attended the Women Deliver conference and the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September promised to devote more than $1.4 billion to the overall cause of reducing maternal mortality.

The funding push comes amid a growing recognition that progress has been too slow for the world to meet the millennium development goal that calls for reducing maternal deaths.

The Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which in 2006 received a gift of $31 billion from money manager Warren Buffett and has so far pledged $563 million to maternal health, vowed to take further action. Over $486 million has already been paid out.

The Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation pledged $11 million in new technology to Pathfinder International, a reproductive health organization in Watertown, Mass., to fight blood loss after childbirth in Nigeria and India.

Japan promised to focus prominently on global health when it hosts the Group of Eight economic summit in Hokkaido Toyako in July 2008.

The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the International Labor Organization, the United Nations Foundation, UNICEF, Exxon/Mobil and GlaxoSmithKline all pledged to take some form of unspecified action as well.

At the U.N. General Assembly meeting in September, Norway pledged $1 billion for the Global Campaign for the Health Millennium Development Goals to improve child and maternal health and reduce disease; the Netherlands pledged $178 million for gender equality and maternal health; and Denmark pledged $21 million for reproductive health and HIV-AIDS.

Kara Alaimo is a New York-based writer.

Women’s eNews welcomes your comments. E-mail us at [email protected].

For more information:

Americans for UNFPA:


MDG Monitor:

Note: Women’s eNews is not responsible for the content of external Internet sites and the contents of Web pages we link to may change without notice.