No mother should die giving birth

The United Nations Human Rights Council, including the U.S., recently recognized maternal death as a human rights issue.

With this groundbreaking resolution comes a global commitment to protect and empower women and girls. This is a sign the issue is finally being taken seriously.

For the past 15 years, governments have failed to meet the commitments made and targets set to reduce the more than half a million maternal deaths every year. So what comes next?

Preventing maternal deaths can be done. I have no doubt. To get there requires three well-coordinated actions: sustain political leadership, secure adequate resources and strengthen health systems.

Political will from top to bottom must drive this campaign. Throughout the struggle for safe motherhood, women have lacked powerful advocates.

Their voices and needs are rarely heard in policy forums or even in their own communities. Recognizing maternal health as a human rights issue is a positive step, but only effective if it translates into action. We must ensure safe motherhood is a fundamental right leaders deliver on.

It's great to see the Obama administration places women and girls high on the agenda, and there are many Congressional allies who support this issue.

At the G-8 Summit in Italy this week, I encourage President Obama to champion — and challenge — world leaders to make this human rights and development issue a priority.

Protecting the health and saving the lives of childbearing women requires significant resources. To be blunt, an estimated global commitment of $39 billion over 10 years is needed to make significant progress.

This is an investment in women, their families and the economic productivity of nations. It's a lot but the cost of not investing is far greater.

Women are the ones who do two-thirds of the world's work and produce nearly 60 percent of the world's food. When a mother dies, her children are less likely to eat well, go to school and get immunized against diseases.

In fact, children who lose their mothers are 10 times more likely to die in childhood than children with mothers. Maternal and newborn deaths represent an estimated annual loss of $15.5 billion in productivity. Clearly, other development goals cannot be met without healthy mothers.

And this is the most tragic and infuriating point: The death of a woman in childbirth is one of the most inexcusable deaths on earth.

High maternal death rates are a barometer of weak health systems, often reflecting the low status of women. When you strengthen them to address maternal health, you will see the system address other health needs.

For women in most poor countries like Sierra Leone, health facilities are too far away, unaffordable, under-equipped or simply nonexistent. These conditions act as barriers for realizing a woman's right to health, and ultimately, the right to life.

But it doesn't take much to change that.

We know what success looks like. In countries like Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Peru, mortality rates are being reversed through four life-saving programs: family planning, skilled and culturally sensitive care during pregnancy and childbirth, emergency care for complications and postpartum care.

No matter how you measure it, women and girls bear the brunt of poverty. They are also our greatest hope for eradicating it. To enable them, nothing is more important than reducing maternal mortality — the leading cause of death among women and girls of reproductive age.

Women need more champions. The U.S. can spearhead a comprehensive maternal health action plan and, by doing so, set an example for world leaders to join and invest in.

We have the knowledge, the technology, the cultural understanding and the means to educate. The actions we take now can make maternal death a problem of the past and not one of our children's future.

Dr. Helene Gayle is the president and CEO of Atlanta-based CARE, the global poverty-fighting organization.

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