Maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health

Opening remarks at the Roundtable with women leaders on MDG 5

Dr Margaret Chan
Director-General of the World Health Organization

New York, USA

Distinguished ladies, women leaders

First and foremost, let me say how pleased I am to be part of a group that is so frankly biased towards women.

This is a bias that recognizes the leadership in this room, and this is a bias that recognizes the huge unmet needs of millions of women around the world.

Women have a special place on the development agenda for two main reasons. First, women have the potential to spur development in sustainable ways.

As noted in the Millennium Declaration, the empowerment of women is an effective way to “combat poverty, hunger and disease and to stimulate development that is truly sustainable.”

That is quite some power, don’t you think?

But it needs to be unleashed.

Second, women experience special health problems, many of which are linked to their reproductive functions. Of these problems, deaths caused by complications of pregnancy and childbirth are the most obvious and tragic example.

Of all the Millennium Development Goals, Goal 5, which calls for improving maternal health, is the least likely to be met in every region of the world.

Of all the statistics in public health, the difference between maternal deaths in wealthy and developing nations is the greatest.

In wealthy countries, an estimated 9 women will die out of every 100 000 live births. In sub-Saharan African, the number of deaths is 900.

Let me give you just a few more statistics.

Each year, more than half a million women die in pregnancy and childbirth. Of these deaths, a full 99% occur in developing countries.

For every women who dies, an estimated 30 more suffer long-long disabilities linked to childbirth trauma.

Each year, around 16 million adolescent girls give birth. Girls under the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their twenties.

Unsafe abortion is responsible for around 13% of all maternal deaths.

Access to family planning services can reduce maternal mortality by as much as 35%. Yet worldwide, an estimated 120 million women want to plan their families, yet have no access to services.

What does all this tell us? The problem is huge. It has many facets. And it is most unfair.

One impediment to progress is the large number of factors that make adolescent girls and women vulnerable to death and complications during pregnancy and childbirth. We do not have a single tool to rally around – like bednets for malaria, or antiretroviral therapy for AIDS, or vaccines and vitamins for young children.

Many women die during pregnancy and childbirth because they are illiterate, undernourished, poor, pregnant, and powerless. These are failures of society. Lack of access to family planning is a failure of society.

Women leaders need to raise their voices against these failures.

A recent BBC documentary on maternal mortality captured the problem in its title: Dead mums don’t cry.

We have abundant evidence. Things can change, when influential people – women and men – care enough to makes these issues a priority.

I look forward to hearing your views.