Maternal Deaths: A Preventable Global Tragedy

Ed note. This is excerpted from United Nations Foundation CEO Kathy Calvin’s column for the Huffington Post’s Global Motherhood section, written for the London Summit on Family Planning. 

Imagine a cruise ship full of women sinks every day for the rest of the year – killing nearly 1,000 women per day. The world would be horrified and demand action.

The sad truth is that a tragedy of this magnitude does happen every day in developing countries, yet largely goes unnoticed. Every two minutes, a woman dies from complications related to pregnancy. Even more tragic: many of these deaths could be prevented with a simple and cost-effective solution — voluntary family planning.

According to the Guttmacher Institute, today more than 220 million women want the ability to prevent or delay pregnancy, but lack access to effective modern contraception. Meeting this urgent need could save lives – reducing maternal mortality by one-third and infant mortality by up to 20 percent.

Giving women the tools they need to plan their pregnancies also strengthens families and communities.

Study after study has shown that investments in girls’ education, women’s reproductive rights, and greater access to family planning correlate with healthier families, higher family incomes, economic development, and environmental sustainability. Access to family planning can also reduce health care and social service costs for governments. In some countries, every dollar invested in family planning can save up to $13 in other assistance. The bottom line: global development improves when women in developing countries can access the voluntary family planning that they want, need, and deserve.

The need for universal access to reproductive health was first outlined almost 20 years ago at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo. Nearly two decades later, the global community continues to grapple with this issue. Despite the benefits of voluntary family planning, many governments have failed to prioritize funding in recent years. And while the recent Rio + 20 conference on sustainable development reaffirmed the ICPD agenda on health care, the final outcome document largely did not focus on the importance of reproductive health and family planning to sustainability and left out reproductive rights all together. Let’s be clear: There is no sustainable future without reproductive health care.

Now is not the time to move backwards; now is the time to double-down on our efforts to ensure the rights of women everywhere, including access to voluntary family planning services.

Today we have an important opportunity to move forward. I am in London, where the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development are bringing together some 200 high-level representatives of governments, multilateral agencies and foundations from around the world for an unprecedented London Summit on Family Planning to tackle the unmet need for family planning.

The Summit’s goal is to garner commitments from governments, the private sector and civil society to help provide an additional 120 million women and girls in the world’s poorest countries access to voluntary contraceptive information, services, and supplies. This will require donations of approximately $4.3 billion over the next eight years. This in addition to $10 billion needed to maintain current levels.

To build a healthier and more sustainable future, we must invest in women. It’s time for the U.S. government and donors around the world to step up to the plate and join in creating a world where every woman has the ability to plan her family. By investing in family planning, we have the potential to save and transform the lives of millions of women and girls in the world’s poorest countries and build a better world for our children and grandchildren.

This is not a political issue; it is an issue of life or death. It’s time for the world to demand action on behalf of the millions of women who don’t get the services they need. Tragedies happen every day, but the real tragedy will be if we don’t act to save the lives of these women and children.