A few weeks ago, on 8 March, the world celebrated International Women’s Day, which serves as a clarion call to honor girls’ and women’s contributions to their families, communities and nations. As our global population swells to over 7 billion, we must heed this call by working to ensure that every girl and woman lives a long, healthy and happy life.
Here in Africa, we are doing just that. On 27-28 March, policymakers, researchers and advocates from across the continent are gathering in Kampala, Uganda, for a regional consultation on maternal and reproductive health. At this meeting, convened by Partners in Population and Development and global advocacy organization Women Deliver, experts will discuss lessons learned, best practices and challenges for improving the health and wellbeing of girls and women.
Across Africa, far too many women die while giving life. Africa has the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with 48% of all global maternal deaths occurring in this region. A woman in Liberia has a 1 in 20 lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, and this risk is even higher in other African countries. Hundreds of thousands more women are injured while giving birth.
In rural areas, the outlook for women and girls is often even bleaker. Rural girls and women are less likely to receive an education, own property or be financially independent, despite the contributions they make to our societies and economies. They are also less likely to receive the health services they need, such as family planning or skilled care before, during or after birth.
A recent study found that 640 rural women die during pregnancy and childbirth per every 100,000 live births, as compared to 447 urban women. Many women in rural areas do not have the financial resources and transportation needed to travel to far-off health facilities, and if they do make it to a facility, many encounter language barriers, unaffordable fees or shuttered doors.
Many of Africa’s maternal deaths could be prevented with increased access to family planning services. Unfortunately, many women do not have this access. In Liberia, for example, 36% of rural women want, but do not have access to, family planning services and, overall, only 10% of married women report using modern contraception regularly.
If we provide girls, women and their partners with family planning information and services we can empower them to decide the number, timing and spacing of their children – and whether they want to become pregnant at all. Intended pregnancies are safer and healthier pregnancies.
Despite the many challenges, there is some good news. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated one-third fewer women worldwide are dying from complications during pregnancy and childbirth now than in 1990. In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, maternal mortality has declined by 26% over the past two decades.
We have also seen greater political commitment towards reducing maternal deaths. As part of its commitment to United Nations Secretary-General’s Global Strategy for Women and Children’s Health, Liberia recently pledged to increase health spending from 4% to 10% of its national budget, double the number of trained midwives, provide free universal access to health services, including family planning, and increase the percentage of health care clinics providing emergency obstetric care from 33% to 50%.
The Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality (CARMMA), launched in 2009 with more than 30 African countries’ support, sets clear pathways to reach measurable goals around maternal health. The Office of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Every Woman Every Child campaign and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health are two global initiatives that have each convened government, civil society and corporate leaders to improve the lives of women and children.
The recent decline in maternal deaths in Africa and increase in political will are welcome signs that real and lasting progress can – and will – be a reality. The Kampala consultation will provide Africa’s leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to work together to build on past successes and pave a way forward for improving the lives of girls and women in Liberia and worldwide.
The time is now to deliver for girls and women. Let’s join together to celebrate them every day by making their health and wellbeing a top global priority.
Dr. Jotham Musinguzi is the Regional Director of the Partners in Population and Development Africa Regional Office in Kampala, Uganda.