Africa: Pregnant with possibility

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The news of a pregnancy should ideally be met with joy – but all too often there is justifiable fear. The African Union Summit this week, set to focus on the health of mothers and children, has a chance to transform this fear into hope.

Ten years into the Millennium Development Goals, we know what African leaders have always appreciated: when you invest in mothers, whole societies benefit, and when you care for children, you raise a new generation of leaders.

This is not a theory; at the United Nations we see it happen in reality.

In Sudan, 16-year old Awatif Altayib lost her baby following two days of difficult labour, and emerged from the ordeal herself injured with obstetric fistula. Her future with this debilitating condition looked bleak – until she recovered with assistance from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and its partners. Now Awatif is a working midwife, helping other women to survive.

Southern Sierra Leone has one gynecologist serving an area home to two and a half million people. That is why recently when Hawa Barrie suffered complications in pregnancy, she and her family feared the worst.

But the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working with the Government and other partners to improve health services there. Thanks to these efforts, Hawa survived, her newborn son received his shots, and both are on their way to a healthy life.

Abiodun Titi of Nigeria is another thriving African mother. Although she is HIV-positive, she was able to conceive with her HIV-negative husband safely thanks to a method involving the female condom. With help from the UN and its partners, she now teaches others this life-saving approach.

Unfortunately, millions African women do not have the same opportunities. Maternal mortality rates on the continent are among the highest in the world. And progress in reaching the Millennium Development Goal of drastically reducing these deaths has been abysmally slow.

Fortunately, African leaders are squarely facing the issue. The scale and seriousness of the problem demand no less. And it is especially fitting that the AU Summit will focus on maternal and child health. Africans, place great cultural value on mothers – not only those who give birth but all women, since in a meaningful social sense all are helping to raise children.

The United Nations is ready to work with Africa to make good on its proud traditions. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently launched a Joint Action Plan to accelerate progress on safe motherhood, calling for 2010 to be a turning point for women’s health.

Africa’s leaders must also do their part by pledging the resources we need to honor past promises and open the way to a better future. We have a blueprint in the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights, which has clear objectives and detailed cost estimates for how to reach them. And as Africa leaders commit to doing their part, so should their development partners.

The AU Summit should join its voice to the rising chorus of partners supporting the Joint Action Plan. That means expanding national health plans that put priority on women and children’s health. It requires increasing the proportion of budget resources for this purpose. Countries must commit to a full continuum of care, so that women are not just seen when an emergency strikes, and so that clinics and caregivers address all of their reproductive health needs, whether pregnancy-related or not. And we must reach even the most remote and poverty-stricken areas.

By taking a strong stance backed by concrete pledges of funds, the Summit can unleash a wave of progress within countries, across the region and around the world.

I know the value of a declaration from the continent’s leaders. During my years as Tanzania’s Minister for Community Development, Gender and Children, I saw how a signal from the AU summit could serve as a rallying point for our work countrywide, spur action throughout the region and benefit the entire continent. And from my view at the United Nations, I see how Africa’s bold actions can inspire other continents to advance.

There will naturally be many other issues requiring the Summit’s attention, including conflicts, poverty and other blights that are causing so many girls and women to suffer. But by putting their health at the top of the agenda, the Summit will do more than benefit individual females – it will set the stage for resolving these broader problems and creating a better world for all.

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