Pulitzer Center Update

Back to the Basics: Saving Mothers Through Accessible Health Care

In an article in the Edmonton Journal on the second day of this summer's crucial G8 Summit, Canadian parliament member Dr. Keith Martin reasoned that dollars spent on maternal health benefit whole communities. Earlier, at the Women Deliver Conference in Washington, D.C, Martin put it this way: "If you can treat a woman for pregnancy and birth, you have the basics of a primary health care system."

Under pressure to address maternal and child health (MCH) from proponents like Martin, G8 countries pledged $5 billion over the next 5 years to these issues by end of the summit on Sunday. However, they stopped short of creating a global fund earmarked for MCH which Martin and others had proposed.

Some critics, such as Oxfam and Make Poverty History, claim that the G8's $5 billion pledge does not represent newly committed funds but only shifts funding away from nutrition and education programs. Critics also say that the G8 has not sufficiently addressed issues of accountability. They complain that previous funding commitments have not been met.

Even those, like Bono of One.org, who see the G8 cup as half-full rather than half-empty would be hard-pressed to say that global funding is now sufficient to meet Millennium Development Goal 5--lowering maternal mortality by three-fourths by 2015. UNFPA and the Guttmacher Institute estimate that more than $12 billion of additional funding is needed annually to meet this goal.

Experts agree that the knowledge and technical means to meet this goal exist, and that they are even simple, low-tech and cost-effective, but what is still lacking is the political will to direct adequate funding into the health systems that would make these means accessible. In 2005, the UN Millenium Project published a report titled Who's Got the Power? Transforming Health Systems for Women and Children in which the authors stated the problem clearly:

"For hundreds of millions of people, a huge proportion of whom live in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the health system that could and should make effective interventions available, accessible, and utilized is in crisis—a crisis ranging from serious dysfunction to total collapse."

The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and UNFPA premiered a multimedia exhibit at the Women Deliver Conference that highlights the need for accessible health systems in saving women from the perils of childbirth. In the 12-minute film summarizing Stories of Mothers Saved, interviewees acknowledge the access to medical care that saved their lives. They repeatedly prod government leaders with the same message: "Women should have access to excellent free health services," one says. "Build health centers in our communities," says another. "We need to have more hospitals nearby," says a third. G8 leaders would have done well to heed this sensible advice.

White Ribbon Alliance President Theresa Shaver and UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid premier Stories of Mothers Saved at the Women Deliver Conference: