Friday, July 9, 2010

Making 2010 a Turning Point for Women's Health

As the international community readies to commemorate World Population Day Sunday, the United Nations is reviewing the state of the world's women - and how they stack up against the risks of maternal mortality and the lack of universal access to reproductive health.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon wants 2010 to be "a turning point for women's and children's health".

Hundreds of thousands of women - 99 percent of them in the developing world - die annually as a result of pregnancy or childbirth, he said, adding, "We know how to save their lives. We can do it with quality health systems, qualified medical staff, information and tools for preventing and treating diseases such as malaria and HIV/AIDS."

A U.N. report on the status of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including drastic reductions in hunger and poverty, says there has been slow progress in expanding the use of contraceptives by women primarily for two reasons: poverty and lack of education.

"The use of contraception is lowest among the poorest women, and those with no education," it says.

The study points out that "the unmet need for family planning remains moderate to high in most regions, particularly sub-Saharan Africa".

At least one in four women aged 15 to 49, who are married or in a relationship, have expressed the desire to use contraceptives but do not have access to them.

Still, progress has been recorded by many countries on maternal mortality.

"We welcome the MDG reports indication of progress, with some nations significantly reducing maternal death ratios," Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA), told IPS.

However, as the report notes, the reductions fall far below the rates required to meet the MDG target of 5.5 percent annual reduction.

"Therefore, to speed up progress, we must invest more in reproductive health for women and girls," said Obaid.

"If every woman received reproductive health care, maternal death and disability would cease to be the devastatingly common tragedy it is today," she added.

Obaid said that evidence from research and from the progress made so far prove that investing in women is not only the right thing to do, it is also smart economics.

"When women are healthy and survive, they provide enormous social and economic benefits for their families, communities and nations," she added.

In a report released last year, Population Action International (PAI) said the number of African women who died from pregnancy and childbirth in 2008 was much higher than the number of casualties from all the major conflicts in Africa combined.

"Maternal mortality continues to be the major cause of death among women of reproductive age (15-49) in sub-Saharan Africa," it said.

Most of these women die from complications that can often be effectively treated in a health system with adequate skilled personnel, and a functioning referral system that can respond to obstetric emergencies when they occur, the report pointed out.

Kathy Calvin, chief executive officer of the United Nations Foundation, told IPS, "If world leaders put women and children at the top of the global agenda, we can make real progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals."

She said hundreds of thousands of women die needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth every year. Every death is one too many.

As the U.N. secretary-general has made clear in his Joint Action Plan, everyone has a role to play in ensuring the health of the world's women, she added.

"Women around the world are counting on the global community to insist on universal access to family planning and to satisfy the unmet need for contraceptives," said Calvin.

Obaid said UNFPA asserts the right of everyone to be counted, especially women, girls, the poor and marginalised.

Population dynamics including growth rates, age structure, fertility and mortality, migration, and more influence every aspect of human, social and economic development.

"With quality data we can better track and make greater progress to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, and promote and protect the dignity and human rights of all people," she said.

Obaid stressed that data can reveal striking situations in countries.

"Girls may be delaying marriage, an indigenous population may be drastically underserved, and higher rates of contraceptive use and skilled birth attendance may show progress towards improving maternal health," she said.

The MDGs include a 50 percent reduction in poverty and hunger; universal primary education; reduction of child mortality by two-thirds; cutbacks in maternal mortality by three-quarters; promotion of gender equality; environmental sustainability; reversal of the spread of HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; and a global partnership for development between the rich and the poor.

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Violence against women is a worldwide yet still hidden problem. Freedom from the threat of harassment, battering, and sexual assault is a concept that most of us have a hard time imagining because violence is such a deep part of our cultures and lives.