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Mothers Matter

All Eugenia Itme needs is a rock, or something she can use to hop on her bicycle. Then she’s pedaling three hours up the steep Peruvian Andes to Pueblo Libre to ensure expectant mothers are cared for properly.

"Women won’t have to fear that the day they give birth could also be the day they meet death, robbing another child of a mother, another community of a leader."

Like other poor women around the world, 53-year-old Eugenia can do a lot with just the tiniest of boosts. She volunteers at a rural health post to be one of the first in line to care for pregnant women and new mothers whose needs have been historically neglected.

Eugenia is an example of a new grassroots wave that’s developing to boost maternal health around the world.

In the past, health posts like the one Eugenia bikes to every week would be left unattended, or the staff wouldn’t speak the same local Quechua language as their patients. Women would be charged for services that should have been free, or fined under made-up rules. With no one watching, maternal health services were often “anything goes,” and women and children paid the price with their lives. Now, as awareness increases, people start to understand this is a solvable problem. The vehicles for cutting the number of pregnancy-related deaths by 75% by 2015 include family planning, skilled and culturally-sensitive care during pregnancy and childbirth, emergency care for complications, and postpartum care.

I am seeing first hand that a coordinated, global effort is beginning to emerge, not with talk but with action.

For over 20 years, the world community has been talking about maternal health, yet the number of women who die each year—over 530,000 deaths—has remained stubbornly high. Ninety-nine percent of deaths occur in poor countries and most are preventable. This is a testament to how motherhood has been taken for granted, not only as a health issue, but also as a political and human rights issue.

But I’m optimistic. If you were to ask me last year what was lacking in maternal health care I would have said “political will.” But now political will has started to germinate as policymakers learn more about this often tragic issue. The UN Human Rights Council, including the US, recently passed a groundbreaking resolution that recognizes maternal death as a human rights issue. And, on the ground level, many unsung heroes, like Eugenia, are already driving change in their communities.

Meeting women in developing countries, I realize I have been witnessing a new “movement” of women leading change—one that has the potential to meet reproductive health needs and save many lives that are now needlessly lost. When we succeed—and I do believe we will succeed—women won’t have to fear that the day they give birth could also be the day they meet death, robbing another child of a mother, another family of a daughter, another community of a leader. Each mother, after all, has the power to nurture the next generation and potential to unlock development in their communities.

Women like Eugenia take small steps toward this shared goal every day. As a global community, we should do no less to help boost their efforts.

About Helene D. Gayle

Helene D. Gayle has been the president and CEO of CARE, a leading humanitarian organization fighting global poverty, since 2006. Previously, she was director of HIV, TB & Reproductive Health within the Global Health Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. She has served in the US Public Health Service for 20 years and has been a consultant for WHO, UNAIDS, UNICEF, and the World Bank.

Comments

Charis Keller's picture

Serving the Underserved

It makes me so happy to hear when maternal care actually respects the women it is meant to serve and does not just constitute a set of westernized recommendations from out of touch organizations. That means speaking their language, going to them instead of expecting them to leave their communities at their most vulnerable time as pregnant or postpartum women, that means honoring their birth culture and it also means supporting their traditional midwives while simultaneously offering clinical care should the need arise. Above all, maternal care should never be a set of mandates forced on women, instead it should always stem from the needs and choices of the women it is meant to serve.

Angel.S's picture

On the Matters of Mothers

Thank you so very much, Helene, for sharing this wonderful piece. I have admired your work and commitment to public health over the years. I agree with the post just before mine, by Charis, in which she rightly states that part of the provision of maternal care must be "honoring their birth culture" and "speaking their language." As we all know, language is much more than strips of nouns and verbs banded together .. it is understanding and appreciating another's culture. I do believe, as Charis states, that we can and MUST find the balance between offering the nursing model of midwifery while ensuring the safety of mother, child, and family through good clinical care. It is indeed a human right.

Angel V. Shannon, RN
Public Health Nurse / Integrative Health Educator
www.onedharmacenter.com

Cathy-Sue's picture

Glimmers of Hope

Many thanks from me as well Helene for an uplifting and very inspiring feature column. I believe it's so important to highlight the accomplishments of unsung heroes such as Eugenia and it's really refreshing to see there's some optimism for global maternal health. Of course there is much that remains to be done in poor and developing countries in particular but the swing in political will should hopefully start showing some results in that regard.

Cathy Sue, Chief Editor @
Single Parent Center

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