MANHASSET, New York — Health ministers from countries with the highest number of maternal deaths gathered here with heads of several UN agencies and key partners to discuss action plans for improving maternal health. In addition to strategizing ways to improve community access to midwifery as part of integrated, national health sector development plans, they exchanged experiences with successful programmes and compared challenges.
The meeting took place days before the one-year anniversary of Every Woman, Every Child, a global effort to achieve country-led commitments to bring life-saving health care to millions of women and children in the developing world by 2015.
The ministers who gathered on Sunday – from Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria and the United Republic of Tanzania (mainland and Zanzibar) – were joined by heads of agency and senior representatives from the H4+ (comprising UNFPA, UNICEF, WHO, the World Bank and UNAIDS); by the head of UN Women; members of the MDG Advocates; the International Women’s Health Coalition; civil society; the private sector and other development partners. The aim was to broadly mobilize the financial, technical and human resources countries need to meet their national commitments.
“This is phenomenal, because we’ve never seen this kind of movement on the ground from Member States,” remarked Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, to the group assembled. UNFPA, on behalf of the H4+ agencies, has led efforts to mobilize countries to commit to the Global Strategy throughout 2011. Nearly a dozen countries will announce new commitments at Tuesday’s high-level event on Every Woman, Every Child.
The partnership effort moves outside of conventional models for maternal health programmes and financing. It is designed to leverage greater openness to private sector involvement, both in financing and service delivery, to improve both the impact and sustainability of programmes.
“What we can do is to raise awareness, advocate with governments, especially donor governments, bring our business skills,” said Ray Chambers, MDG Advocate and UN Special Envoy for Malaria. He pointed to those business skills and logistics support as areas where the private sector could particularly contribute.
Michel Sidibé, the Executive Director of UNAIDS, called on the UN system to reach out and involve others, and to explore ways to share fiscal responsibility. He noted the need to lessen the impact of cut-backs or freezes on aid – as has happened following the global financial crisis – on community-level health.
Although UN Women – the newly-formed UN agency devoted to gender equality and women’s empowerment – is not a health-focused agency, Executive Director Michele Bachelet pledged in a keynote address to coordinate with the H4+ to address factors outside of the immediate health system that affect women’s access to services. “Health is related to many other social determinants. It’s about equity,” Bachelet said, praising the “courage” ministers of health present had shown in identifying and acting to improve some of the challenges facing their health systems. “The world’s women recognize your leadership and vision,” she added.
Several partners spoke poignantly about their own personal experiences with mothers who had not survived pregnancy. Adrienne Germain, the President Emerita of the International Women’s Health Coalition, recalled meeting a young woman named Esther in Yaounde, who bled to death following an unsafe abortion. “She died because of restrictive laws, prejudice and discrimination.”