Women Deliver Conference Essay

Ten years ago the United States joined 188 United Nations Member States in adopting the Millennium Declaration and its eight lofty goals that set a collective vision for the future — one with less poverty, hunger and disease, more opportunities for women, and greater prospects for survival for mothers and infants.

That was also the same year that a young girl named Melodie* in the Democratic Republic of Congo celebrated her twentieth 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. But when one sibling died before her eyes of starvation, Melodie made the choiceless-choice. Because of the men who preyed upon her, she was aware of this “option,” and at 13, she sold her virginity, sacrificing her bodily integrity and sexual autonomy in order to feed to feed her surviving siblings. By 14, a botched at-home abortion landed her in the hospital. To pay for her treatment, she was forced to to have exploitative sex with more men for pennies.

Luckily, at age 23, one of our PSI staff found Melodie and started talking to her about reproductive health and HIV-prevention; later she helped Melodie train and find work as a hair stylist. Now, ten years on, Melodie works full-time as a hairdresser; she’s decided not to have children right away, so she earns enough money to support herself and her siblings – her life is transformed.

Globally, we aren’t doing nearly as well as Melodie. Since the creation of the eight Millennium Development Goals, Goal 5 –(delete) 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 around pregnancy, childbirth and unsafe abortions. Beyond those deaths, the continual unmet need for family planning – especially among the poorest of women – 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. In the DRC alone, by 2050, 89 million children will be born to women who express a desire for modern family planning, but who do not have access to it.

Although women are so clearly at the heart of our families, communities, and our economies, (deleted) we continually place their health, their rights, and their opportunities to thrive at the bottom of the list. Unpaid work done by women equals about one-third of the world’s Gross National Product. In Africa, women produce 60-80% of all staple foods and in Southeast Asia they provide 90% of the labor for rice cultivation. For women – as for all of us – health is the cornerstone upon which stability and prosperity is built. When girls and women have access to health services, and education, and are able to lead healthy, empowered lives, the positive effects ripple out. Families survive, communities thrive, and economies boom.

Knowing this, why has maternal health been so difficult to improve, despite the fact that we have known and cost-effective solutions to do so? On Monday, I will join the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon at the Women Deliver conference in Washington, DC. The conference will serve as a powerful platform for the world’s advocates, policy makers, and experts to meet and to discuss the tangible steps needed to place maternal and reproductive health at the center of the global agenda. It also symbolizes the return of the United States as a strong partner in maternal and reproductive health.

I’m grateful to be a part of this moment in history. There is room for all of us to play an active part in finally empowering women— from the tiniest NGO to established government agencies. Maternal deaths are preventable – we know what needs to be done and what the world will gain if we do. The time is now – it’s both the right thing to do, and it’s sound economics.

*Out of respect for her privacy, I’ve changed my young friend’s name to Melodie.