Ten years ago, the United States joined 188 other countries in adopting the eight lofty Millennium Development Goals, promising to work collectively toward a future with less poverty, hunger, and disease; more opportunities for women; and greater prospects for survival for mothers and infants.
That same year—2000—was also the year that a young girl named Melodie, living in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, celebrated her 20th birthday—and her seventh anniversary as a woman trapped in prostitution.
Melodie’s parents abandoned her and her four siblings because they couldn’t afford to care for them. Told by their departing father to literally “eat dirt,” they endured as they could, living in the streets and finding shelter where possible. But after her younger brother died of starvation before her eyes, Melodie (whose name has been changed to preserve her privacy) made a “choiceless-choice,” one that she knew existed only because of the advances men had attempted to make on her from an early age.
At 13, Melodie started selling sex in order to feed her surviving siblings. By 14, a surprise pregnancy ended in an unsafe abortion, landing her in the hospital. To pay for her treatment, she was forced to have even more exploitative sex, for just pennies.
Luckily, at age 23, after 10 years of transactional sex, Melodie met a PSI HIV outreach worker who began talking with her about reproductive health and HIV prevention. Eventually, she helped Melodie train as a hair stylist. Melodie now works full-time as a hairdresser; she’s decided not to have children right away, and she earns enough money to support herself and her siblings. Her life has been transformed by the power of knowledge.
Rose in Tanzania is another story of success. She knew if she had too many children she wouldn’t be able to take care of them properly, and her daughters would suffer the same fate as Melodie. So Rose secretly started using contraception that she found through a private health-care provider. In the video below, you can see how access to modern long-acting and reversible contraceptives has changed the lives of Rose and her family.
The problem is that the stories women tell around the globe often don’t have such happy endings. While Melodie and Rose are enjoying better lives, there are millions of girls and women who are still struggling. Maternal and reproductive health remains a neglected and underfunded global issue. Goal 5 of the eight Millennium Development Goals—to improve maternal health—is the one toward which the least progress has been made.
Hundreds of thousands of women and girls continue to die needless deaths due to complications from pregnancy, childbirth, and unsafe abortion. And, the continual unmet need for family planning—especially among the poorest of women—makes it difficult for women to manage their fertility and take advantage of economic opportunities, which in turn makes it difficult for mothers to feed growing numbers of children and ensure that each child is able to go through school and find gainful employment of their own.
Although women are the backbone of families, communities, and economies, we continually place their health, their rights, and their opportunities to thrive at the bottom of the list. Unpaid work done by women accounts for about one-third of the world’s gross national product. In Africa, women produce 60 to 80 percent of all staple foods, and in Southeast Asia they provide 90 percent of the labor for rice cultivation.
For women—as for all of us—health is the foundation upon which stability and prosperity are built. When girls and women have access to health services and education, and are able to lead healthy, empowered lives, there’s an astounding multiplier effect. Families survive, communities thrive, and economies boom.
There is tremendous momentum around women’s global health issues as we work to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015, and I’m thrilled to be part of the conversation on the frontlines, pushing this agenda forward. Maternal deaths are completely preventable—we know what needs to be done and we have the cost-effective tools to do it. More importantly, we know what the world will gain if we do.
Ashley Judd works with the nonprofit PSI, investing in the power of women to lift communities out of poverty. Check out PSI’s magazine, Impact, to read PSI Ambassador Debra Messing’s interview with Daily Beast Editor in Chief Tina Brown.
PSI board member Ashley Judd is a celebrated actress, activist, and humanitarian. In her work with PSI, she has visited 12 countries, meeting with government and community leaders, testified in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and spoken at the United Nations.