Keep Women and Girls at the Heart of Development

11 October 2013

As world leaders reviewed progress towards achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at the United Nations General Assembly last month, some observers and development experts rightly reminded us that we still have a long way to go. This is particularly true for efforts to save women's and girls' lives and to fulfill their reproductive rights -- the aim of MDG 5 on maternal and reproductive health.

In the 21st century, no woman should die bringing new life into the world, especially since we know how to prevent maternal deaths. With just over 800 days remaining to the MDGs deadline, we must combine our efforts to tackle the top causes of maternal death and prevent unintended pregnancies.

Just four conditions are responsible for 70 per cent of maternal deaths: post-partum bleeding, high blood pressure, general infection and complications due to unsafe abortion. Thousands of women's and girls' lives could be saved by just providing access to medicines and health supplies.

Although the leading causes of maternal death are largely known, effective interventions to prevent such deaths have fallen short of current needs. Increasing access to basic medicines and clean health supplies, for instance, could save the lives of tens of thousands of women every year. And many more deaths could be averted if women and girls could access contraceptives to plan their pregnancies. Yet, over 200 million women still lack access to this basic need.

We know much more than we did just a few years ago about these conditions and how to prevent them. We also know that achieving MDG 5 – and its two targets, to reduce maternal mortality and increase access to reproductive health – will help achieve other development goals.

Moreover, it's smart economics: Evidence suggests that investment in reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health has a potential return of more than $20 for every dollar spent.
However, commodities alone cannot solve the problem of maternal death. Substantial investment will also be required to ensure that these supplies can actually reach the women who need them.

UNFPA is working hard to promote sexual and reproductive health in more than 150 countries, and to ensure that women and girls have the information, services and supplies they need to have a safe, healthy and fulfilling life. We are also working to make key drugs and health supplies universally available and to increase access to family planning.

UNFPA will further step up its initiatives so that all women and girls who want to use safe and effective family planning methods receive relevant information and high-quality services. The aim is to prevent an additional 120,000 girls and women from dying unnecessarily, the target set by MDG 5.

When we provide reproductive health services to women, we also prevent many newborn deaths. For both mothers and their newborns, the period of delivery and the hours immediately afterwards are critical.

Likewise, when women and girls are given the means to prevent unwanted pregnancies and space births, maternal and child deaths can be significantly reduced.

Just 10 countries account for more than 60 percent of all maternal deaths worldwide. By implementing key interventions in these priority countries, we will be able to achieve MDG 5 on time. This will provide the impetus we need as we move beyond 2015 to push for the end of all preventable deaths and ensure the health and human dignity of all women and their families.

But we must collectively recommit to achieving MDG 5 and make it happen everywhere. To do so, we need to decide that women's and girls' lives are worth saving, and that they have the right to equal access to health care. It's a political decision that can make a huge difference in the lives of women and girls.
Addressing the persistent inequalities that negatively affect women's and girl's health is our unfinished business. It's also the key to truly equitable, sustainable development. That's why we believe that women and girls must be at the heart of any future development policies.

This opinion piece originally appeared in The Huffington Post

Follow Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin on Twitter: @babatundeunfpa

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