With just more than one month to the G8/G20 summits, the stakes for women around the world could not be higher as maternal health takes centre stage in foreign policy and global development. When the G8 leaders gather in Huntsville, Ont., in June to adopt an action plan on maternal health, the world will be watching.
Canada has a historic opportunity to lead on this issue. Each year, hundreds of thousands of women die during pregnancy and birth largely because of preventable causes. Their deaths have farther-reaching implications, for women deliver more than babies.
Women are the backbone of our families, communities and economies. In the developing world, for instance, women in Southeast Asia provide 90 per cent of the labour for rice cultivation; in rural Africa, two-thirds of all goods transported are done so on the heads and backs and in the arms of women.
Families and communities are at a loss without mothers. A baby is four times more likely to die if the mother dies. Maternal health is more than a measure of women's well-being; it is a measure of the health of her society and of her country. A woman's needless death while giving life is as much a societal and economic disaster as it is a moral outrage.
The good news is that global momentum to save women's and girls' lives is growing stronger. New statistics suggest that maternal mortality and morbidity rates have fallen - evidence that concerted efforts to ensure access to trained providers, equipped facilities and life-saving supplies are paying off.
Some G8 members have already acted to save lives. Earlier this year, U.S. President Barack Obama unveiled his Global Health Initiative, which will strengthen health systems abroad and doubles U.S. funding for maternal and child health.
Over the coming months, at least two important global meetings will focus on maternal health.
On June 7-9, just weeks before the G8 Summit, a major conference in Washington, D.C., called Women Deliver will bring together more than 3,000 ministers, parliamentarians, and advocates from 140 countries to discuss achievements in and barriers to improving maternal health. Senior Canadian ministers and parliamentarians should be there to highlight our commitment and support to maternal health.
In late September, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon will push the agenda further when he convenes a summit of world leaders to review the status of the Millennium Development Goals, of which MDG 5 - to improve maternal health and reduce maternal mortality by three-quarters - has the furthest to go between now and the 2015 deadline.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper has promised to make maternal health a priority when the G8 meets. Development Minister Bev Oda's recent statements, following the meeting with her G8 colleagues in Halifax, give us a preview of what that will mean, including: strengthening health systems in developing countries; training skilled birth attendants; providing a full range of family planning methods; giving access to childhood immunizations; and providing enhanced nutrition for mothers and newborns - an area where Canada is recognized as a world leader.
We already know what is needed to save the lives of women, girls and newborns. But to implement these solutions, there must be funding - between $10-billion and $20-billion. The big question is whether the G8 will come up with the money to turn promises into action.
Understanding the critical role that funding plays in global development raises another important matter for us in Canada. Last year, the federal government froze or cancelled many international-aid budgets, including for the poorest countries in Africa, where more than half of all maternal deaths occur and where more than one million newborns die yearly. With the Canadian economy now on the road to recovery, this is the time for our government to rethink that decision.
This year, Canada has an unparalleled opportunity to shape the future of maternal health and change the futures of women - and mothers - worldwide. Pregnancy and birth should no longer be a death sentence for women and their children.
Maureen McTeer is a lawyer and author and the Canadian representative of the international White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood.