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Healthy Families, Healthy World: The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health and the MDGs

2012 February 27
by Ann Starrs

Ann Starrs is FCI’s president. The remarks below were delivered by Ann at the United Nations Association of the USA’s Members’ Day, at the UN on February 10, 2012.

I’m going to start this talk with a story. It’s the story of a family in Afghanistan, several years ago. The wife was pregnant for the seventh time; she died of postpartum hemorrhage, the most common cause of maternal death in poor countries. Because her husband couldn’t cope with the responsibilities and cost of caring for a large family on his own, one of their daughters, aged 13, was married off, to a much older man. At the age of 15, she gave birth to twins. One of the infants died right after birth, and the young mother developed fistula, a horrifying complication in which a woman develops a hole between her urethra and vagina, and leaks urine for the rest of her life unless the hole is surgically Ann Starrs at the UN (Photo: Arnold Gallardo/UNA-USA)repaired. Because of her smell, her husband sent her back to her father, with the weak and ailing surviving infant. They had to spend what was, for them, a significant amount of money trying to get care for the baby.

This is just one family’s story, but it is representative of millions more. Around the world, a woman dies from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth a thousand times every day. A child dies, of similarly preventable causes, every 3 seconds. Add these stories up, and the annual death toll is staggering: 350,000 maternal deaths a year, each one leaving grieving parents, husbands, or children, and 7.6 million children dying before the age of 5. Forty percent of these children are lost in their first month of life, and again, nearly all of these deaths are preventable.

The tragedy of this Afghan family is representative in another way. It portrays, in a nutshell, the multiple reasons why the world must invest in women’s and children’s health. There is a clear moral imperative to prevent these needless deaths, but no less clearly there is an economic imperative. A healthy woman — who is able to decide on the number and spacing of her children, who can deliver them safely, who can see them through childhood in good health — is someone who can contribute to the economic productivity, and to the social and cultural stability, of her family, her community, her nation, and the world. A family destroyed by the loss of a mother or daughter, made desperate by the loss of a breadwinner, or burdened by the tragedy of a lost child, is far too often a family that finds itself trapped in an inescapable cycle of poverty.

This is a challenge that advocates, NGOs, and UN agencies have been working on tirelessly, for decades. My organization, Family Care International, has been working in partnership with governments, other NGOs, donors, academics, and others to raise attention and mobilize commitment — and funding — to address the multiple causes and prevent the horrifying consequences of maternal death. Much of our work is done through and with the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, & Child Health (known as PMNCH), which has worked to great effect to focus the world’s attention on the powerful and crucial concept of the continuum of care.

The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health was launched by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the General Assembly in September 2010.  The Global Strategy was an expression of the Secretary-General’s recognition that the health MDGs — and particularly MDG 4 (Reduce child mortality) and MDG 5 (Improve maternal health) ­— were headed for failure, and that this dire circumstance presented the world with an urgent moral imperative. The Global Strategy, and the Every Woman Every Child effort that aims to generate commitments to the Global Strategy, represents the compelling moral power of the UN and its Secretary-General to mobilize the world into focused action. Its stated goal was to save 16 million lives between 2010 and 2015.

The Global Strategy has, so far, provided a much-needed jumpstart to international efforts to bring about real progress on women’s and children’s health. It has bought together key UN and other multilateral agencies (including WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, UNAIDS, and the World Bank) around a coherent, comprehensive vision of what needs to be done to save lives. The Global Strategy set clear, measurable targets, and mechanisms have been established to keep track of whether targets are being met and to ensure accountability. It has mobilized a broad range of stakeholders — from civil society organizations to corporations, from all of the most important international donors to the governments of dozens of developing countries — to commit themselves to take specific, concrete, and significant actions. Many of these commitments have been pledges of money, which is desperately needed, but many have also been commitments in kind: pledges to build new midwifery schools, to achieve specific increases in national skilled childbirth attendance or immunization rates, to institute free emergency obstetric and child health care, or to increase access to and use of contraceptives.

UN Association members' day, February 2012 (Photo: Arnold Gallardo/UNA-USA)This is a multi-year effort, and one whose goals are both ambitious and urgently necessary, and much more still needs to be done. In this time of limited and constrained resources, we must bring about greater efficiency and effectiveness in the ways that aid is allocated and programs are implemented, with a particular focus on the integration of services, so that women and families can meet their health care needs at a single health center offering high-quality, comprehensive services across the continuum of care. We must work in a targeted way, focusing our resources and efforts on key countries, where the burden is highest, and on key, proven interventions. We must ensure that governments, donors, and all other stakeholders are held to account for fulfillment of their commitments: the Global Strategy only becomes truly meaningful when its promises are kept, and advocates (including my organization) are working hard to make sure that they are. And we must have sustained, vocal, visible, high-level leadership — from the Secretary-General himself, from heads of state, and from celebrities; but also from dedicated and often unsung individuals in ministries of health, in civil society organizations like the United Nations Association, in hospitals and clinics, and in the villages and communities where so many women and children are still dying.

So what am I —an advocate from an NGO, and not a representative of the UN — doing here, in front of the United Nations Association, describing an initiative of the UN Secretary-General? I’m here because a great part of the power of this initiative is the way it focuses on the value of partnership to get things done. An engaged, empowered civil society — both here at the global level, and at the grass roots in every country with a high burden of maternal and child death — must play, and is playing, a central role in that partnership. The voice of civil society is key to making change happen, in every corner of the world.

In 2000, the world committed itself in the Millennium Declaration to bring about momentous change by the year 2015, to address the historic challenges of poverty, hunger, disease, inequality, and environmental degradation that deform or end so many lives in the developing world. Much progress has been made, but it is clear that the goals related to health will not be fulfilled. And MDG 5 is the furthest from success. As we begin to talk about an international framework for continued, and accelerated, progress beyond 2015, that framework must include special attention to the health, well-being, and education of children and women. The United Nations, under the leadership of Ban Ki-moon, has set a visionary, progressive agenda. It is our obligation to build on that legacy, to build a world where no woman and no child dies a preventable death, simply because they were born in the wrong place, because they are poor, because we pretend we can’t afford to save them. The Global Strategy has been an essential first step, and its urgent, essential work will continue until it is done.

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