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Jill Sheffield

Keep up the pressure on maternal health, Canada Add to ...

Almost one year ago exactly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced that maternal health would be the focus of the summer's G8 summit. This was major news for those of us who had spent decades in the maternal health field, and was one more signal that 2010 would be a landmark year for our issues.

And from virtually every standpoint, it was.

New data showed that global maternal deaths were in decline. And a series of high-level events and announcements - from Melinda Gates's $1.5-billion pledge at Women Deliver to the African Union's renewal of the Maputo Protocol - were capped at the United Nations in September by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's announcement of a $40-billion plan to scale up women's and children's health services in the poorest countries.

At the time, Mr. Harper received considerable criticism - from across the global political spectrum - while negotiating his leadership on this weighty issue. This is not surprising since maternal health is not a simple or small problem with a quick fix.

But when Mr. Ban launched his "Every Woman Every Child" plan in September, and announced an elite accountability commission to guide its implementation, Mr. Harper was tapped to lead this group. In the face of criticism, immense global pressure and a slew of politically sensitive issues, Canada has continued undaunted in its leadership on maternal health.

I commend the Prime Minister for his persistence. It is worth it, I can assure him. Convincing the world to invest in women is not easy, but when we do we will see benefits that are far-reaching and multifold. We need Mr. Harper's unwavering commitment more than ever, because while we have had tremendous good news on several fronts, mountains of work remain.

We must ensure that girls and young women are not left out of maternal health efforts. The sad truth is that "mothers" in much of the developing world are actually adolescents and young women. We need to empower and respect young people as agents of change, and think critically about the unique needs of this vulnerable population.

We need to address the overwhelming burden of need for family planning: More than 200 million women do not have access to what I consider a basic right to control one's own fertility, body and future. We must convey that access to family planning is basic health care and a basic right, and when women are unable to exercise it, the negative implications on families, communities and economies are far-reaching.

Finally, we must remember that more than 350,000 women a year are still dying from pregnancy- and childbirth-related causes when they do not have to. We have a range of really basic and affordable life-saving technologies and techniques that merely need to be implemented.

There is a chilling simplicity to these awful truths - that women and girls should die when there are very clear ways to save them - that we must not forget.

These thoughts remain with me as I travel to attend the inaugural meeting of the UN accountability commission on maternal health this week in Geneva. I am honoured to be one of the few representatives of civil society, and I look forward to congratulating the Prime Minister on his leadership and to delivering this reminder: If 2010 was a peak, 2011 must not be a plateau.

We must continue the momentum we've worked so hard to generate. This year we need to take chances, make investments and demand more of ourselves - and others - than ever before.

Jill Sheffield is the president of Women Deliver and a member of the UN Accountability Commission on MDG5.

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