The Women Deliver conference (www.womendeliver.org), is running June 7-9 2010 and the GAB team is present! It is a global meeting on maternal and reproductive health and the advancement of women and girls. Tune in today, tomorrow, and Wednesday for live updates directly from the conference floor.
By Erin Rickard and Kyle Bachan
Lunch With Melinda Gates
After a busy morning with press conferences and transcripting, we sat down with our lunchboxes to hear Melinda Gates discuss the Gates Foundation’s involvement in maternal health. She called on leaders of the developing world to give more funds and that “we have the momentum now”. She deplored the acceptability of death in childbirth and stressed that this normalization of death must go and that family planning is the key to ending maternal mortality. With a $1.5 billion promise of funding from the Gates Foundation (in addition to what they are already funding), she ended the luncheon with a well deserved standing ovation from the audience.
We need a world in which every birth is a promise, a promise for a better future.- Melinda Gates
Unsafe Abortion, Maternal Mortality, and MDG 5
This panel discussed the high unsafe abortion rates in developing countries and the steps that need to be taken in order to bring this number down. Some of the causes of this high abortion rate discussed were legal restrictions on abortion, the fact that women often delay care for fear of arrest, inaccessibility to modern contraceptives, among other barriers to accessibility.
Postabortion care (for botched abortions) was also touched upon; they cost about $100 per patient (which is many times the cost of a safe abortion). An audience member asked if there were any postabortion protocols in developing countries but the panelists responded that some countries do have specific organizations for this but “postabortion doesn’t make abortion safe… just survivable.”
‘How do we address religious opposition?’ was a question that seemed to resonate strongly among the audience. The panelists agreed that there needs to be a generation of evidence of the harm against women through unsafe abortion. If we can provide religious leaders with these hard facts then we can show them that this is about helping humanity, not upholding some archaic traditions.
The panelists also stressed the need to place a human face on the problem of unsafe abortion. By highlighting specific stories of women who have been injured, disabled, or died from pregnancy related issues, the world can view maternal mortality as more than a statistic, but a frightening reality.
What is the MDG 5?
MDG’s are millennium development goals pledged by the United Nations. MDG 5, which is the topic of conversation at the Women Deliver conference, is targeted at improving maternal health. The goal is to reduce 3/4 of maternal mortality by 2015. Unfortunately, many of the speakers at the panels we have visited so far have said that despite the Lancet report in the drop in maternal mortality rates, we are ways away from reaching this goal. Gamal Serour, President of International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics, declared that we need the ‘political will’ in order to achieve this goal; in other words, we need to lobby governments and obtain the necessary leadership in order to make the 75% drop a reality. Further, in discussing maternal mortality, we must not exclude women with disabilities or who have been hurt psychologically or physically. Furthermore, Thoraya Obaid, Executive Director of UNFPA added that we need to also consider the woman life cycle (i.e. before, during and after reproduction)–not just maternal health.
More thoughts on the Invest in Women Press Conference
One highlight of the morning press conference was an anecdote told by Ashley Judd describing the life story of a woman she met in Africa, Melody. Melody’s story reflects the intersectionality of the issues of reproductive health, sexual autonomy, education, and economic independence. When she was a teenager Melody’s father and stepmother abandoned her and her four siblings, one of whom soon starved to death. To support her surviving siblings, Melody began engaging in “economically-forced prostitution,” as Judd termed it. She later suffered a botched abortion, and had to see more clients to pay for her medical care. Her life turned around when she met an aid worker who helped her train as a hairdresser, and now she is achieving financial stability.
Former President of Ireland Mary Robinson also gave a memorable talk, challenging the United Nations’ joint action plan for maternal health introduced by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon this morning. The plan “needs to clarify responsibilities” of nations, President Robinson said, and fails to emphasize women’s health as a human right. She also noted that even within the nations that do achieve MDG5 by 2015, minority and poor communities living in “pockets of poverty” will continue to struggle with poor maternal healthcare.
Women and Power Plenary
During this panel five powerful women spoke of the intersections of the personal and political that make it especially challenging for women to achieve success in their work and personal lives. Arianna Huffington, co-founder of the Huffington Post, started off the discussion by asserting that young people should be taught that “failure is not the opposite of success, it is a stepping stone to success.” Valerie Jarrett, the White House’s adviser on Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs, seconded the thought that US culture’s emphasis on success at all costs has dire consequences for women’s wellbeing. She believes “you can have it all, but not all at the same time,” explaining that she wouldn’t have been able to balance her current job with raising a young child.
The panelists also described concrete policy changes necessary to increase women’s power. Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, praised efforts to bring more women into parliaments around the world and spoke of her work to make the tertiary education more affordable. Michelle Bachelet, former President of Chile, added her thoughts about equal pay and her work to include housewives in Chile’s pension system.
Multisectoral Benefits of Educating Girls
On this panel experts highlighted the progress made in girls’ education in the last few decades and outlined areas still in need of improvement. Elaine Murphy of the Population Reference Bureau said that in the last 20 years girls have begun marrying and having children later in life, but child marriage remains a huge barrier to women’s health and development with 40% of girls in south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa married by age 18. Child marriage leaves girls vulnerable to STIs, domestic violence and dangerous early pregnancies. Education is a primary solution, as the more years of education a girl receives the later she marries and the better equipped she is to keep her family healthy.
Stephanie Baric of CARE USA added that in addition to education, girls need opportunities to develop leadership skills through extracurricular activities and social networks. Often girls who marry young are isolated from their peer group, she said, and thus lose out on an important source of support. Amina Ali, African Union ambassador to the US, related her own experience as the first woman in her family to achieve higher education. Families are willing to invest in their sons’ education because they will contribute to the family financially, she explained, but aren’t willing to invest in girls because they are considered destined only for childrearing. The panelists’ take-home message was that child marriage must be stopped and girls must receive more access to better quality education and healthcare to end the vicious cycle of poor education and poverty.