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Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health Event Takeaways

   /   Sep 26th, 2011News

Looking at the statistics, the world has a long way to go on maternal health. One woman dies from pregnancy- or childbirth-related complications every minute–that’s 529,000 women a year. That number seems even larger when you think about the fact that almost all of those deaths are preventable.

But it’s precisely because those deaths are preventable that gives so many people hope and the drive to work on fixing this problem. And, say women’s rights advocates, women’s development is at the center of all other development, making it the single most pressing issue the world continues to face.

It’s been well established that women with more education have fewer children, which means that the lack of sufficient education for girls around the world is directly connected to the unsustainable speed at which the world population is growing. But it’s not just a lack of knowledge: it’s also estimated that if women were empowered to time their pregnancies–meaning if they had access to contraception–carbon emissions would be reduced by eight to 15 percent of the reductions necessary to avoid disastrous climate change.

One out of every four births around the world is unplanned. Every year, 42 million abortions are performed. Half of those are performed in secret, and many of those in turn are performed in dangerous conditions or by people who do not have the proper skills, and 68,000 women die as a result, according to Kavita Ramdas of the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health.

Reproductive health was the issue that drew Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, into politics in the first place. She got herself elected as a senator in Ireland in 1969, where one of her first efforts was to try to change the law that banned not the use of condoms, but the buying or selling of them. More than 40 years later, she is still focused on reproductive health.

“It is not a comfortable issue,” she told the audience at a Global Leaders Council event on a recent Monday evening in Manhattan, “but it is a fundamental issue for human rights and for development.”

Members of the Council spoke for over an hour about the stories that brought them personally into the work of reproductive health. For Malawi Vice President Joyce Banda, it was her own experience of giving birth, during which she suffered from postpartum hemorrhage, which is the leading (and preventable) cause of maternal death for millions of women every year.

“The only reason I survived was because I was privileged to be under good care,” she said. It was that recognition of good fortune that drove Banda to dedicate her life to providing education to girls and empowering women and girls.

To date, Banda said she has been the force behind the construction of three schools, sponsorship and feeding of thousands of students and children, and the passage of a domestic violence bill in 2006. She’s pushed a movement for safe motherhood and increased use of family planning, and she sounded like she has the energy to work for decades to come.

Jan Eliasson, former president of the United Nations General Assembly and Sweden’s former minister for foreign affairs, reminded the audience that just 70 years ago, Sweden was not the prosperous nation it is today. He said he grew up in a very small apartment, and did not see his first bathroom until he was 10.

He said as better education became more commonplace for women, families became smaller, contributing to Sweden’s ability to develop a vibrant economy; and that it’s possible for a country—any country—to prosper “if you do the right things.”

For the Americans in the audience, U.S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin brought the issue a little closer to home. Born in Alabama, she was a physician committed for the bulk of her career to improving the health of individuals in her community. She ran a clinic that was destroyed first by Hurricane George and then by Katrina. They rebuilt it more quickly the second time than the first, only to see it burn down the day after it reopened for the second time on New Years Day. Just as Benjamin was questioning whether these were signs that it was time to quit, a young girl came up to her with an envelope containing $7 from the girl’s grandmother, a donation to help rebuild the clinic once again. Benjamin said, “If she could come up with $7, I was going to come up with the rest.”

Now, as Surgeon General, Benjamin has made reproductive health one of the pillars of the National Prevention Strategy, which seeks to reduce the five leading causes of death nationwide.

Fred Sai, former president of the International Planned Parenthood Federation and considered the father of the reproductive health movement (strangely, no mention of who its mother is), really drove home the urgency of maternal health. He talked about first grasping the scope of the issue after secondary school, when his “special” lady friend, who had a scholarship and tremendous intellectual promise, was given to marriage to pay off her father’s debt.

As a “small man,” said Sai, “why should I not recognize what I owe to women and girls who have helped me so much?”

That lack of recognition around the world is shameful, he said, and he returned to Eliasson’s example of Sweden, which was able to turn itself around in 70 years. Sai, who was born in Ghana, related the issue back to his home continent, where maternal and child survival rates and available healthcare are among the worst in the world.

“I challenge African leaders—political, religious, and traditional—to get up and do it. To say, ‘we can change.’”

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