The Women Deliver Conference Puts Maternal and Child Health in the Spotlight

The Women Deliver Conference Puts Maternal and Child Health in the Spotlight
UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid with midwives, whose key role maternal health has been highlighted throughout the Women Deliver conference and at the symposium that preceded it. Photo: Moises Saman.
  • 10 June 2010

WASHINGTON, D.C. — When the Women Deliver II conference concluded this week, it had succeeded in bringing unprecedented attention to some of UNFPA’s most fundamental issues, including maternal and newborn health, family planning, integration of health services and the global shortage of health care workers. It also honoured UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya A. Obaid for a lifetime of delivering for women.

In his opening remarks to the conference, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon noted that the world has reached a turning point: “History will show that 2010 was a year of new, decisive action - a year when the world decided that no woman should die giving life and no child should die when we know how to save them.”

After it was over, the editor of the Lancet medical journal, Dr. Richard Horton, called the conference "the most significant event for the future of women and children in 20 years. Throughout the three-day conference, which garnered high-level participation, including the heads of several agencies, dozens of government ministers and numerous celebrities, the secretary-general’s joint action plan to accelerate progress on maternal and child health was referred to often. The event drew wide coverage by international and national media to many of UNFPA’s priority issues, including maternal health, family planning, midwifery and obstetric fistula.

The announcement on the first day of the conference of a $1.5 billion pledge over five years to maternal and child health from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation buoyed hopes for accelerated progress. The launch of a new collaboration between CARE and UNFPA offered another sign of galvanized commitment and accelerated action to improve the lives of women and girls. On the weekend leading up to the conference, UNFPA co-hosted a major symposium on strengthening midwifery and sponsored young leaders and health advocates from developing countries. In addition, the Fund supported Stories of Mothers’ Saved and a number of other multimedia exhibits, including streaming video exhibits shown at its booth. UNFPA played a major role in 24 of 120 panel sessions at the conference, on topics ranging from women and climate change to the human rights dimension of maternal health to the importance of reaching marginalized adolescent girls. Here are some of the highlights:

The Conference in Numbers

  • Number of participants: 3,200 representing 146 countries
  • Gender/age balance: 40 per cent male, 25 per cent youth
  • High level attendance: UN Secretary-General, heads of 5 UN agencies, 31 donors
  • News coverage: 259 stories published or broadcast, including many in major media outlets
  • Largest donation: $1.5 billion from Bill and Melinda Gates

Delivering in good faith

What are the unique strengths of faith-based organizations in delivering for women’s health and empowerment? How can they work together and with international development partners like UNFPA, to enhance service delivery and advocacy? Those were the questions posed to a panel of senior representatives from different faith-based organizations, hosted by UNFPA during Women Deliver discussion, ‘Deliver in Good Faith’.

The panel, which was moderated by UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya A. Obaid, included a Tibetan Buddhist nun living in exile in India, an Anglican priest from Venezuela, as well as Muslim and Jewish representatives from different interfaith organizations. The panel discussed an issue that UNFPA has been actively promoting for many years: the importance of building on the strength, trust and shared values of many faith-based organizations and their unique service-delivery capacities.

“We need to continue to plant a TREE, which means Trust, Respect, Engage and Empower the people we are serving,” said Dr. Hany El-Banna of the Humanitarian Forum. “We should also identify our common values and engage in intra- and inter-religious dialogue. Here I think we should use the UN more as facilitator.”

Ms. Obaid agreed on the need to join forces to improve maternal health, and said the UN agencies can help by providing facts and information to strengthen the ability of faith-based organizations to formulate appropriate messages for their congregations and by creating ‘safe spaces’ for sharing of experiences and lessons learned around population and development interventions.

Ministers' Forum on MDG5

Ministers of health and finance from over 30 countries with high rates of maternal and newborn deaths took part in a UNFPA-supported Minister’s Forum . They met in a series of meetings to review data and analyze the efforts to achieve MDG 5. The aim was to identify strategies to overcome the barriers and accelerate progress toward their targets by 2015. The forum concluded with the adoption of a joint statement calling upon world leaders to take immediate and concrete steps to prioritize maternal health. The statement will be part of advocacy efforts for the G8/G20 Summits and United Nations Special Meeting on the MDGs in September.


 Launch of Countdown to 2015


A comprehensive report tracking progress in maternal and child health was launched 8 June at the Women Deliver conference. According to the Countdown to 2015 Decade Report (2000-2010), a lack of skilled attendants at birth accounts for two million preventable maternal deaths, stillbirths and newborn deaths each year, in spite of remarkable progress in some poor countries. The report argues that achieving MDGs 4 and 5 (on maternal and newborn health) is possible by the deadline year 2015, but only with a dramatic acceleration of political commitment and financial investment can make it happen.

The report features country profiles from the 68 countries that account for at least 95 per cent of maternal and child deaths that include coverage data for a range of key health services, including: contraceptive use, ante- and post-natal care, skilled attendance at delivery, child health, financial investments in maternal, newborn and child health, equity of access, health systems and policy.

The Countdown to 2015 initiative is a collaboration among individuals and institutions, including UNFPA, to revitalize efforts by countries towards the achievement of the health-related Millennium Development Goals 1, 4 and 5, with particular attention to the continuum of care for reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health. More

Day-long symposium explores the Pill and its impact

On 8 June, the Pill and its consequences are being discussed in an all-day symposium on reproductive health technology, “50 Years after the Pill — The Revolution Continue.”  It featured experts in the field of reproductive health discussing the social, economic, and health benefits of modern contraceptives.

After reviewing various biomedical, public health and social and cultural dimensions of modern contraception over the last 50 years, the symposium looked ahead to the future of reproductive health technology, including the use of microbicides as a method of women-initiated HIV prevention, new methods of cervical cancer screening, the use of mobile phones, and low-technology ways to prevent post-childbirth bleeding. Other contraceptives in the research pipeline include invisible gels to rub onto the skin, and vaginal rings that would prevent HIV infection as well as pregnancy. At a morning plenary and subsequent news conference, however, researchers stressed that nothing yet looks like the contraceptive panacea that the birth control pill did not turn out to be either. The current lack of access to contraceptives faced by women in much of the developing world was an important focus of the discussion. More

“Adding It Up” featured prominently


With momentum building that more needs to be done to improve maternal health, the economics of how to make that happen are taking centre stage at the conference in Washington. The fact that MDG 5 – improve maternal health – is the most underfunded of all the health related MDGs, has been a consistent theme throughout. “It pays to invest in women's reproductive health and rights. It's not only the right thing to do; it is also smart economics,” said Ms. Obaid at the conference “Women deliver enormous social and economic benefits for their families, communities and nations. When women are healthy and survive, children and others live and thrive.”

In plenaries, panels, meetings with government leaders and conversations in the corridors, the findings of the recent UNFPA and Guttmacher Institute report, Adding it Up, are being repeated and reinforced: doubling the current global investment in family planning and maternal health from $12 billion to $24 billion would dramatically reduce the number of women and newborns dying, by 70 and 44 per cent, respectively. "Over the past few years funding for global health has soared, while funding for womens' health has stagnated and funding for family planning has declined," said Werner Haug, Chief of UNFPA's Technical Division,at a high-level session on Adding it Up. "We still believe in the dream laid out fifteen years ago at the International Conference for Population and Development in Cairo -- that reproductive health should be available to all -- and Adding it Up will help make this a reality."

Cinema Corner

After a series of intense, information-packed meetings, one of the most popular events on Wednesday, the final day of the Women Deliver conference was the Cinema Corner. The ‘screening room’ at the conference offered a chance to absorb information on some of the themes highlighted throughout the conference in a different way.
More than ten films were screened relating to some of the prominent themes of the the conference, including maternal health, family planning, violence against women and youth empowerment. Three films produced in collaboration with UNFPA were featured: Youth Zones, featuring the voices of youth in conflict zones; Midwives Deliver, documenting the role of midwives in saving the lives of women and newborns in Ghana; and Saving Haiti's Mothers, which looks at the maternal health situation in Haiti.

"It is absolutely critical that we have strong, smart films that give voice to our issues," said Jessica Malter, UNFPA maternal health communications officer. "Films are a critical part of any succcessful communications and advocacy strategy, especially when you are dealing with issue such as maternal and reproductive health. The most powerful voices are those of the women themselves and we want to make sure their voices are heard in the debates and discussions."

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