This week's Women Deliver Conference in Washington, D.C. was the first in a series of international conferences and summits that will focus the world's attention, for the next four months, on Millennium Development Goal 5: to reduce maternal deaths in the world by two thirds and to provide access to reproductive health care for all by the year 2015.
The conference drew over 3,000 activists, advocates, youth leaders, health workers, academic experts, policy-makers and government ministers from around the globe, foreshadowing the upcoming G8/G20 Summits in Canada at the end of June, the African Union Summit and the International AIDS Conference in July, and the UN Summit on the Millennium Development Goals in September. The health of women and children and reproductive rights are central issues at each of these assemblies.
Women Deliver President Jill Sheffield opened the conference with Co-Chairs Dr. Fred Sai of Ghana and former president of Chile Michelle Bachelet who both spoke before Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon took the floor. He declared: "If we act now and act together, we can deliver for women." The Secretary-General also presented a draft for consultation of the Joint Action Plan for Women's and Children's Health which will be revised for the upcoming UN MDG summit.
Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation delivered the lunchtime address on Monday and announced that the foundation would be adopting a new integrated approach centered on the needs of women and children rather than on the specializations of medical experts or disease-centered programs. She also invigorated the conference participants with a pledge of $1.5 billion over the next five years for family planning and maternal and child health.
The need for an integrated, multi-sector approach that would encompass the whole continuum of care for women and their families was echoed repeatedly throughout the three-day conference. The major causes of maternal mortality—infection, hemorrhage, hypertensive disorders, obstructed labor and unsafe abortions—are best addressed, as evidence shows, by improving access to health facilities and trained birth attendants. But in countries where education levels are low, infrastructure is weak and health systems are fragmented, providing access to care becomes a complex and expensive venture.
While the commitment of funds from the Gates Foundation was a welcomed beginning, conference organizers estimate that an additional $12 billion per year are required to reach MDG5 by 2015. Many speakers emphasized the need to pressure governments to create a global fund specifically for women's health and to demonstrate the political will to keep this issue on the table.
Although First Lady Michelle Obama canceled her appearance at the conference, U.S. Secretary of Health Kathleen Sebelius attended an afternoon plenary session and emphasized the Obama Administration's commitment to women and girls' health in its strategy to reform health care in the United States. Sebelius also recognized that "We still have a huge gap in service delivery in this country."
In addition to the plenary sessions in the main hall, there were also numerous concurrent sessions, a Ministers' Forum, a Parliamentarians' Forum, a First Lady's Forum, a Speakers' Corner, a Cinema Corner, multiple NGO exhibitions, and related art and music events. The appearance of celebrity-activists Ashley Judd and Annie Lennox also drew the media spotlight to the conference and contributed an energetic urgency to the cause of women's health.
View Annie Lennox in a plenary session discussion:
Jill Sheffield brought the conference to a close by reminding participants, in midwifery terms, that "Now's the time to push!" After UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Obaid was honored with an award and a standing ovation for her contribution to the advancement of women's health, Dr. Fred Sai had the final word saying, "We hope you have now got the fire in your belly and it will make you walk the talk."
In the coming months, Pulitzer Center journalists will continue to contribute articles on maternal mortality from around the globe to our website, Dying for Life, and more articles will be posted on this blog addressing maternal health-related issues and events. The Pulitzer Center is also currently sponsoring a maternal mortality writing contest with Helium. The deadline for the contest is June 24 and the winner will be announced July 7.
Correction: This post was updated June 11, 2010.