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Delivering A Better Future For Women And Girls 

By Dr. Fred Sai*

Theresa wakes up at the first glimmer of sun in the morning. It is Monday and the first day of class at the school where she is a teacher. She bathes and feeds her two children, Sola and Victoria. Together, they walk the short distance to school, stopping to visit an elderly woman who Theresa and her women’s group support. When she arrives at school, Theresa gathers her forty-five pupils into the small classroom and begins a new year of lessons.  

Theresa is one of the millions of women who deliver enormous benefits to our countries, families and children every single day. Women like Theresa teach our children in school; they sell goods in the market; and they work in banks, hospitals and health centers.

These women also carry and deliver our children – the future of our country and continent. Yet, the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth continue to threaten women’s lives. My experiences in Ghana, Cameroon and across Africa, have made me uncomfortably aware of these many deaths. Though there has been a drop in total maternal deaths in the past ten years, still far too many women die during pregnancy and childbirth, and thousands more suffer short or long-term disabilities. 

Given her level of achievement in other areas of development, Cameroon’s maternal health situation should be considered a major blot. One woman out of every twenty-four dies from pregnancy related causes, and no woman is immune to these dangers. Rural or urban, women lack access to maternal health services and even when they attend hospitals and health centers for care, countless numbers still die.

These are all women just like Theresa. They leave behind families and children, and some are no longer able to work or participate in their community activities. We can prevent these deaths if we invest in a few key safe and affordable health services. First, all women must have access to family planning so that they can determine whether and when they want to have children.

They need access to skilled care before, during and after they give birth. Health providers must be trained in emergency obstetric care and health facilities stocked with all necessary supplies for when complications occur. Emergency transportation from communities to health clinics must be developed. And when it is legal, women need access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care. 

Providing these services is not only the right thing to do, it is the economically smart thing to do.   Women are a driving force in the economy and when they are healthy, they play a crucial role in the development of our countries. Globally, maternal and infant deaths account for $15 billion in lost productivity, not to mention immeasurable grief for families and communities.

That is $15 billion that could instead go towards strengthening economies, building roads and schools, and fostering a brighter future for our children. Additionally, giving women access to services like family planning saves money. Recent research has shown that every $1 spent on family planning saves $1.40 in medical costs because family planning prevents unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion and ultimately maternal death.

In just a few weeks, leaders, activists and officials from around the world will be coming together at "Women Deliver 2010", the most important global conference on maternal health in the last ten years, to call for such increased commitments to women and girls. "Women Deliver", which will be held in Washington DC from June 7 to 9, comes at a time of significant momentum around maternal health globally and has the power to reshape the way the world thinks about this issue. As a co-host of the event, I am delighted that Cameroon’s own Honourable Theophile Baoro, who has already shown immense leadership on maternal health, is expected to attend to represent Cameroon. 

Though the goals of this conference are global, the issue is local. It is about our mothers, our sisters, our wives, and our daughters. We all have a role to play: men as much as women; business as much as non-governmental organizations, traditional rulers, and the government.  We – our presidents, our leaders, and ourselves – must all be part of this movement. No one individual or service can do it alone. 

"Women Deliver" seeks to translate the recent talk about maternal health into more effective global action. We must harness the momentum around this conference and take action here.  Now is the time to recognize the critical roles women play in our countries’ present and future, roles they can fulfill if – and only if – they can lead healthy lives. We know what to do to save the lives of women and girls. Now is the time to do it.

*Former Senior Population Advisor to the World Bank and former Advisor to the Ghanaian Government on Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS

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