Gender Equality and Maternal Health: A Global Conversation

A little over a month ago, I was in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for the Women Deliver 2013 Conference.  The meeting convened over 4,500 participants from nearly 150 countries and representing all sectors – from government to academia to the private sector to non-profit, and everyone in between. The goal of Women Deliver’s global conferences, which happen every 3 years, is to create a global platform for ensuring that the health and rights of girls and women remain top priorities within the development agenda.  The timing of this meeting is particularly salient, considering the current opportunities to contribute to the post-2015 development framework.

The three days of the conference were structured around three key themes: Investing in Girls and Women, Reducing Unmet Need for Contraception, and Looking to 2015 and Beyond. Millennium Development Goal 5, or improving maternal health, was the fulcrum around which the whole conference was organized and is what brought everyone together. MDG5 is the furthest behind the other goals and is the least likely to be achieved by its deadline.

I think many participants at the conference, including myself, were asking the question, “And why is that? How can it be the year 2013, and we can still estimate that nearly 300,000 women will die each year from pregnancy and childbirth? What will it actually take to ensure that women around the world have safe, healthy and wanted pregnancies?”  While some solutions are a bit more straightforward and concrete (increase access to family planning, train skilled birth attendants, increase access to safe abortion, etc.), what could be the root cause of such unconscionable statistics? Gender inequality.

Before I started working at Women Deliver nearly a year ago, I was largely unaware that 99% of maternal deaths occur in low-income countries, and of five major and preventable causes. I came from the abortion rights and reproductive justice movement, and was well aware that over 20 million unsafe abortions occurred globally each year, accounting for 13% of maternal deaths. But it was a shock to learn that 1 in 14,100 women die in pregnancy or childbirth in Sweden, but 1 in 23 in Niger. How is this possible? The thing that determines whether or not pregnancy or childbirth will kill you is where you live?

Here’s what gender inequality looks like: When 222 million women still have an ‘unmet need’ for modern contraception, the world is not delivering for women. When the World Health Organization reports that 1 in 3 women throughout the world experience physical and/or sexual violence in her lifetime, the world does not value women and girls. When an estimated 14 million girls are married before they turn 18, the world is not delivering for girls.

The Women Deliver conference wasn’t just a meeting of the usual suspects. As our President Jill Sheffield says, “We opened up the tent flaps and invited everyone who works on the health and empowerment of girls and women.” This means everyone: early and forced marriage; girls’ education; human rights; young peoples’ leadership and participation; economic justice and poverty reduction; HIV and AIDS; food security; sustainability and climate change; peace and security; water and sanitation; violence against women. This coalition must call the world to action. We can’t be siloed in our corners, plugging away at our individual issues and expecting sustainable outcomes. Gender inequality touches all of these issues, and needs to be uprooted.

Improving maternal health isn’t just about health systems or commodities or new technologies, or about finding a ‘cure’ for a disease. Delivering for girls and women is about garnering the political will to invest in girls and women, and creating comprehensive responses to gender inequality. When governments like Malaysia and Ethiopia and Bangladesh improve contraceptive access or support family planning facilities or train community health works, it pays and women’s lives are saved.

If you’re like me – and were shocked at these statistics and the unconscionable status of maternal health globally – here are some more resources: Our infographic about family planning, for you visual folks. The World Bank paper, for you economists. The webcast of plenary sessions at the conference, in case have serious Women Deliver FOMO (fear of missing out).

There’s always more we can do to deliver for girls and women, and it’s time to do everything we can.

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Categories: Health

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