Women Deliver 2010 – First impressions

The 2nd Women Deliver Global Conference began this morning in Washington D.C. Delegates hailing from 146 countries and representing hundreds of NGOs, firms, civil society groups, governments and international organizations convened this morning for the event’s first plenary.

Jill Sheffield, President of Women Deliver, was the first to offer remarks. With visible emotion and pride, she and Women Deliver co-chair Dr. Fred Sai introduced the conference’s first speakers: former President of Chile Michelle Bachelet and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also delivered a special message via video link. All three dignitaries spoke of the pressing need to make women and girls a political priority, and all made it clear that piecemeal efforts would not suffice. Driving the point home, Ban Ki-moon declared “we must fight for women’s health with all of our resources, all of the time.”

Following these introductory remarks, Christiane Amanpour moderated a panel discussion with Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala (Managing Director, World Bank), Thoraya Obaid (Executive Director, UNFPA), Soren Pind (Minister for Development Cooperation, Denmark), Gamal Serour (President, International Federation of Gynecology and Obstetrics) and the lively South African singer and advocate Yvonne Chaka Chaka.

The panelists were unanimous in their belief in the importance of putting maternal health and reproductive rights at the forefront of political agendas, both at the local and national level, but also at the global level. Each spoke of the critical role of good leadership in delivering on the promise of maternal health and equality for women.

“We’re in a place where the news is improving” said Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, but while advances in maternal health have been  made, “we are not yet where we need to be.” She added: “We need to ask ourselves: how did we arrive here? What made a difference? We need to feel a sense of urgency. We should take this as a clarion call to do more of what we are doing that is making a difference.” The general consensus seemed to be that, in spite of progress on several fronts, many daunting challenges remain.

The strong message sent by the opening plenary dignitaries is that, yes, there are challenges – 350,000 women and girls die each year of birth-related causes and 200 million women around the world who want to plan their families and control their fertility do not have access to the resources to do so – but we know how to tackle them. There are proven interventions and tested solutions which have yielded results. Now is the time to scale-up, to rationalize and promote these interventions everywhere where women’s rights and maternal health are still jeopardized. Jill Sheffield noted in her opening remarks, $12 billion is the estimated price tag of this scale-up: “it’s that simple, and that complicated.”

The full webcast of this opening plenary will be available on the Women Deliver website shortly.

UN Dispatch caught up with Jill Sheffield, the charismatic president of Women Deliver, to get her reactions on the conference’s first plenary. Here are her candid thoughts: