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Wednesday, October 28th, 2009 - 3 comments

Birth and death: Time to unleash the power of women

Women are dying in childbirth every day. Now more than ever, we need to truly make the effort to ensure that women everywhere have these rights.

Not since the United Nations declared 1975 The International Year of the Women, has the rhetoric about empowering women been so high and the proclamations of presidents and pundits so encouraging.  Half the Sky: Turning Oppression Into Opportunity for Women Worldwide by Pulitzer-Prize winners Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn is in its 7th printing and #12 on the Amazon Bestseller List. This week’s Time Magazine has as its cover story, The State of the American Woman, coinciding with release of The Shriver Report titled A Woman’s Nation.  All agree.  Everywhere across the globe, today’s women are hailed as pivotal to the health and well-being of their families, communities, nations and the world.  Today’s women are our mothers and breadwinners, healers and entrepreneurs, teachers and negotiators, executives and mentors.

Brutal Reality

Even the most uplifting rhetoric can not hide brutal reality when every minute a woman dies giving birth, when 99% of maternal deaths occur in developing countries, and when every day over 200 million women are without access to modern contraception.  Women dying needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth remains the greatest inequity of the 21st century.  The loss of these women is devastating and the burden incalculable not only to their families, communities and nations, but to the entire world.

Lack of medical care

We know what must be done to save women’s lives.  Skilled health workers at delivery are key.  But in many countries, most notably in Africa and South Asia, half of all women give birth alone or with no skilled midwife, nurse or doctor to help. Even if a woman does, despite all the odds, make it to a health facility, she may find it closed.  If it is open, too often these women are cared for by health workers who lack either necessary medication and supplies or ability to provide life-saving measures. How does a country ensure every woman quality care so she may live through pregnancy and childbirth when even the most dedicated health worker’s capacity to provide care is undermined by a dysfunctional health care system?

World leaders acknowledge the problem

We recognize the acknowledgments by world leaders gathered at this year’s G8 and G20 Summits of the need for “accelerated action” on MDG 4 and 5.  Their endorsement of The Consensus for Maternal and Newborn Health and its stated aim – Every pregnancy wanted, every birth safe, every newborn healthy – is an indication that they hear our appeals.  However, just as the global economic crisis has necessitated dramatic increases in investments to shore up financial institutions, it is equally imperative to invest in health systems that failing to provide every woman access to reproductive health services and comprehensive care before, during and after childbirth.

A global call to action

The good news is that now more than ever, the voices of the people on the frontlines of progress, who are saving hundreds of thousands of mothers and newborns in the world’s most challenging communities, are being heard.  Their call for world leaders to invest in maternal health is being amplified by a growing chorus of maternal health champions ranging from First Ladies to supermodels, CEOs to lawyers, journalists to actors, legislators to researchers who are joining the more than 14.3 million midwives, nurses, doctors and other health professionals in pledging to do their utmost to galvanize change.  The global movement demanding action is gaining strength and clarity every round we go when world leaders deliberate the way forward.

Now is the time to increase our efforts.  We each have a role to play to involve ever more diverse people in a global call to action.  Whether through coordinated activities on the global stage or engagement within our own countries, we must create the political will to hold our heads of state accountable.  Wealthier nations and global financial institutions must meet their obligations to assist resource-poor countries. Governments must commit the funds and develop the plans to support women to seek care and remove all barriers to getting skilled basic and emergency services.

Only when every woman everywhere is assured access to quality health care – including family planning, skilled care at birth, emergency obstetric care and postpartum care – will she be empowered to make her contribution to the health, self-sufficiency, economic growth and peaceful sustainability of her family, community, nation and the world.

Birth and death

Join us.  Please go to to view Birth and Death, a short, graphic film which highlights the tragedy of maternal death around the world. Simple and moving but powerfully argued, the film exposes a scandal which has been going on for far too long: that women and girls around the world are dying needlessly in childbirth, leaving millions of orphans and grieving families. The film calls on viewers to take action – and on world leaders to deliver on their promises – to end this global disgrace.  Please help us spread the word.  Thank you.

The views expressed in this blog-post are solely those of the author.

Comments (3)

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Wednesday 28th October, 2009, 2:45pm

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Kafilat Oloyede
Thursday 5th November, 2009, 11:55am

It is ironical, very ironical, that the process which brings life is the same route that leads to death for many. Many of these deaths are preventable if governement and the people of the affected nations will just be committed to it and the enlightened nations will be willing to lend more hands in the areas of capacity building and equipment supplies. MDG 5, is not a goal that cannot be realised by any nation if all concerned will just be truly concerned.

A lot though still needs to be done in breaking down cultural barriers and taboos that militate against accessing care and modern obstetric practices in many of these nations.

Tuesday 26th January, 2010, 2:33pm

Theresa, thank you so much for your WRA work, which is doing so much to bring about this global convergence on action for maternal mortality.

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Guest Editor

Theresa Shaver

President and Executive Director, White Ribbon Alliance for


Theresa Shaver is a founding member, President and Executive Director of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood. Theresa is a nurse-midwife and has over 20 years of experience in international health program management and implementation, focused primarily on maternal and reproductive health. She has provided technical assistance and worked throughout Cambodia, Ethiopia, Fiji, India, Malawi, Mauritania, Tanzania, Tajikistan, Vietnam, and Zambia.

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