Guest post by Erica Buckingham
The country is Tanzania. The scene is a woman, Janet, experiencing intense pregnancy pains. The hope is that the regional clinic will deliver Janet’s third baby. The reality is that hers is a “high-risk” pregnancy, and the clinic does not have the proper equipment. The tragedy is that Janet does not have enough money to rent a van (estimated at the equivalent of $30) to drive for one hour to Mt. Meru, the closest hospital.
This situation is, unfortunately, not uncommon. Motivated by her own complications during labor, Christy Turlington-Burns filmed the documentary, No Woman No Cry which powerfully exposes the hardships faced by at-risk pregnant women in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala, and the United States. Known for her career as a model and as a maternal health advocate, Burns now brings attention to the shocking statistics and stories surrounding maternal health and mortality.
Fortunately for Janet, Burns’ crew was able to provide the necessary funds for transportation to Mt. Meru. Arriving at the hospital exhausted and dehydrated, the staff worked to induce her, and, three days later, Janet gave birth to a healthy baby boy. While her story ends on an uplifting note, most women in the same predicament are less fortunate.
On September 16, a brief preview of the film screened at the World Bank headquarters in Washington, DC, and was followed by a panel discussion. The panelists included Suraya Dalil, Afghan Minister of Health, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, World Bank Managing Director, Purnima Mane, United Nations Population Fund Executive Director and Rep. Nita Lowey, Chair, Foreign Operations Subcommittee, U.S. House of Representatives.
Inspired by Burns’ work and the important issues the documentary addresses, the four panelists engaged in a lively discussion about the current status of maternal mortality, the improvements made in the last decade as well as the hope for continued progress in the future. The main message from these four prominent women leaders was the need for greater financial investment in maternal and child health.
Suraya Dalil highlighted the need to invest in Human Resources development, specifically in the training of midwives and the improvement of health facilities. She proudly stated that there were only 400 midwives in Afghanistan nine years ago while today there are over 2500. She also spoke to the importance of educating men in addition to women, underlining how maternal and child health is not just a “woman’s issue” but rather a societal issue.
Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala emphasized the need to view maternal health as cross-sectoral and not strictly as a health issue. She highlighted the fact that clean water and improved roads go a long way in improving maternal health, stressing the need for various sectors to communicate and work together. She underscored the importance of recognizing maternal health as an economic issue, a socio-cultural issue, an education issue, an infrastructure issue, as well as an income issue.
Purnima Mane stressed the UN’s commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, particularly #5: reducing maternal mortality. Mane said there needs to be more emphasis on results – not just rights – in order to defend larger health budgets and bolster confidence that positive improvements have indeed been made. Her final messages to the audience were that investments made in women and in maternal health pay off, they have multiple positive effects, and we need to start documenting success stories.
Nita Lowey focused on how education gives women the opportunity to make a positive contribution in the community and the nation. Her main take-home message was that appropriate health policy will follow investments in women’s education.
The screening and panel discussion were appropriately timed just days before the UN’s Summit on the Millennium Development Goals, September 20-22, in New York City. While the panel discussion was overall positive and upbeat, the four women did conclude on a more somber note: in sub-Saharan Africa today, 1 in 22 women die from complications during childbirth that are largely preventable. A sense of urgency permeated the final remarks of the panelists; the tragedy of preventable maternal death occurs daily and must be brought to an end.
Erica Buckingham is a first-year MA student in International Development Studies at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. She is concentrating in anthropology and has a strong interest in human rights and women’s issues. She is currently the Program Assistant for the Global Women’s Initiative and Culture in Global Affairs Research and Policy Program at the George Washington University.