Delivering a better future for women and girls

Source: Dr. Fred Sai, Former Advisor to the Ghanaian Government on Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS
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Dr. Fred Sai, Former Advisor to the Ghanaian Government on Reproductive Health and HIV/AIDS

Theresa wakes up at the first glimmer of sun in the morning. It is Monday, the beginning of the week, and the first day of class at the school where she is a teacher. She baths and feeds her two children, Kofi and Naana. Together, they walk the short distance to the school, stopping to visit an elderly woman who Theresa and her women's group at church support. When she arrives at school, Theresa gathers her forty-five class 5 pupils into the small classroom and begins a new year of lessons.

When I met Theresa in her small town just weeks ago, she struck me as one of the millions of women who deliver enormous benefits to our country, families and children every single day. Women like Theresa teach our children in school; they sell goods in the market; and they work in our banks, hospitals, and health centers. These women, increasingly left alone to their fate by absentee spouses or boyfriends, also carry and deliver our children—the future of our country.

Yet, the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth threaten women's lives every single day. Though in the past ten years, we have seen a drop in maternal deaths in Ghana and our successive governments have championed free maternal health care for all—an action I commend whole-heartedly—it is not enough.

Increasingly frequent news reports about women dying during pregnancy and childbirth have shown us that we must improve the services that we provide women in all of our health centers, hospitals and clinics. Still in Ghana, one woman out of every forty-five dies from pregnancy related causes, and thousands of others suffer short- or long-term disabilities. It is particularly troubling that so many of these deaths occur in health facilities and are entirely preventable. These are women just like Theresa. They leave behind families and children and some are no longer able to work or participate in their community activities.

We can prevent these deaths if we invest in a few key safe and affordable health services. First, all women must have access to family planning so that they can determine whether and when they want to have children. They need access to skilled care before, during and after they give birth. Health providers must be trained in emergency obstetric care, and health facilities stocked with all necessary supplies for when complications occur. Emergency transportation from communities to health clinics must be developed. And to the extent that our 1985 law permits, women must be able to have access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care.

Providing these services is not only the right thing to do, it is the economically smart thing to do. Women are a driving force in our economy, and when women are healthy, they play a crucial role in the development of our country. Globally, maternal and infant deaths account for $15 billion in lost productivity, not to mention immeasurable grief for families and communities. That is $15 billion that could instead go towards strengthening economies, building roads and schools, and fostering a brighter future for our children.

Additionally, giving women access to services like family planning would save money for Ghana. Recent research has shown that every $1 spent on family planning saves $1.40 in medical costs because family planning prevents unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortion and ultimately maternal death.

In just a few weeks, I will be among political and business leaders, health and gender activists, and officials from around the world who will call for such increased investments in women and girls. We will be together at Women Deliver 2010, the largest global conference on maternal health in the last ten years. This meeting, which will be held in Washington DC from June 7th to 9th, comes at a time of significant momentum around maternal health globally and has the power to reshape the way the world thinks about this issue. To my delight, our own First Lady Ernestina Naadu Mills, who has already shown immense leadership on the issue of the healthy development of girls and women here, is expected to represent Ghana and bring the messages back to this country.

Though the goals of this conference are global, the issue is local. It is about our mothers, our sisters, our wives, and our daughters. We all have a role to play: men as much as women; business as much as non-governmental organizations, traditional rulers, and the government. We—our president, our leaders, and ourselves—must all be part of this movement. No one individual or service can do it alone.

Women Deliver seeks to translate the recent talk about maternal health into more effective global action. We must harness the momentum around this conference and take action here. Now is the time to recognize the critical roles women play in our country's present and future, roles they can fulfill if—and only if—they can lead healthy lives. We know what to do to save the lives of women and girls in our country. Now is the time to do it.