Deliver for Women: Not a Request, But an Imperative

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to speak before the Canadian Parliament, at the Standing Committee on the Status of Women, about the importance of investing in women as a global development strategy. Canada is gearing up to host the G8/G20 Summits in just a few weeks, where leaders will unveil a maternal health initiative.

I thought about the immense opportunity -- no, critical responsibility -- Canada has this year to show the world true leadership on maternal health. The world's women and the world entirely, need courageous leadership and vast funding commitments. I don't think anyone needs reminding of just how much we all have at stake.

Women are the economic heart, especially of the developing world. In South Asia, women provide up to 90% of the labor for rice cultivation; in rural Africa, women transport two-thirds of all goods that are their arms, on their backs, and on their heads. In the developing world writ large, women produce 60-80% of the food.

Despite recent, sunnier statistics suggesting that maternal mortality rates have gone down (great news, to be sure), the hard truth remains that even one maternal death, let alone several hundred thousands, is still too many. This is true in California, as it is in Cambodia.

Each year US $15 billion in global productivity is lost due to maternal and newborn mortality. This estimate is from 2001, and the number has almost certainly grown since then. So imagine $15 billion plus in productivity lost. No one can afford this, either in lives lost or development foregone.

At a time when financial conservation is afoot, we need to take a long view. Expenditure to ensure the health, rights, well-being, and productivity of the world's women and girls is the right thing to do, and one of the most fiscally sound things global leaders can do.

Luckily, ensuring this doesn't require any tools or interventions we do not already have at our fingertips. We don't need mountains of gold coins, small armies, or genius inventions to prevent maternal deaths (although these could always help). Instead, we have proven and cost-effective solutions, including access to family planning, safe abortion, and skilled care.

Indeed, the recent statistics suggesting lower global maternal mortality testify to the fact that much of the work and interventions we have toiled over for the last decades are finally paying off. What better time than now to redouble efforts and then some? I can also give you a price tag: at least US$12 billion more, per year, for maternal, reproductive, and newborn health.

In just weeks, leaders from G8 and G20 countries will gather in Canada to discuss the future of our economy and the most pressing global issues at hand. Yet whichever way you slice it, it should all be about investing in women.

As a major advocacy pre-game to this important summit, the Women Deliver conference will convene more than 3,000 thought leaders, advocates, policy makers and young people from 140 countries in Washington, DC on June 7-9. Many of those attending will either be at the G8/G20 Summits weeks later, leading the discussions, or watching keenly to hold their governments accountable to their promises to deliver for women.

Women Deliver will be a meeting of the minds on how to achieve Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG5), the elusive and neglected MDG guaranteeing maternal health which we have now just five years to achieve. We will celebrate countries that have made important achievements in improving maternal health. We will discuss how technology has shaped reproductive health worldwide, from the birth control pill in 1960 to the rapid syphilis test and mobile phones in 2010. We will galvanize a community of global activists to urge our governments: we need the political and financial commitment to address maternal mortality.

I will be there, of course, as will many of you. In my thirty years as a maternal health advocate, no time has seemed more exciting or more possible to achieve what we have dreamed, than now. I commend the G8 leaders for their vision in prioritizing maternal health, but know that we will not let promises slip away unfulfilled. As for G20 leaders, whose summit does not explicitly prioritize maternal health, but instead addresses international economic development, I say: The answer is right next to you. This time there needs to be swift action and substantial capital committed. Invest in women, it pays.