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Renewing Our Promises to Protect Women’s Health

Source: Dr. Jotham Musinguzi and Jill Sheffield

Over the past few years, Africa has shown admirably strong leadership in an area that is critical to this continent's advancement: women's health. From increasing the number of pregnant HIV positive women on anti-retroviral drugs, to ensuring that women are accompanied by skilled caregivers when they give birth, the continent is working hard to demonstrate commitment and progress on this important issue.

Women are the thread that weaves this continent together. They drive local economies and run households. In Africa, they operate the majority of small businesses and farms. Much of our wives', mothers' and sisters' incomes go to our families' food, medicine, and education. Investing in women is the right thing to do. It is also the smart thing to do.

The world has taken note: in just the past few months, leaders from across the globe have pledged to give billions of dollars to women's health programs. At the Women Deliver conference in June in Washington, D.C., the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation announced it would give $1.5 billion to women's health initiatives over the next five years. Shortly after, at the G8 Summit in Canada, where maternal health was a major focus, world leaders announced another $5 billion in funding for maternal health. Clearly, there's a growing realization that if we invest in women, we are also investing in our families, our communities, and our economies.

Now, we have an opportunity to do more. This week, at the 15th African Union Summit in Kampala, Africa's leaders will meet to discuss the most pressing issues facing this continent. The theme of this year's AU Summit is “Maternal, Infant and Child Health and Development in Africa.” Therefore, one essential discussion will concern extending the Maputo Plan of Action, which African heads of state endorsed in 2006 as plan for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). This bold plan emphasizes MDGs 4 and 5, which aim to reduce maternal and infant mortality by 2015. It's one of the most progressive and forward-thinking international frameworks we have for ensuring the rights, health, and livelihoods of women. And we likely can't achieve any of the MDGs in Africa without it.

When African leaders authored and implemented the Maputo Plan, they committed to prioritizing sexual and reproductive healthcare through approaches such as increasing access to family planning resources, scaling-up resources for the prevention and management of sexually transmitted infections including HIV/AIDS, reducing gender-based violence, and expanding access to health education. In the first four years of the Plan, we made great progress in these areas. When it launched the Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) last year, the African Union reinforced this progress. But there's still much more to be done. The majority of the world's maternal deaths still occur on this continent.

Now, as the Maputo Plan expires this year, African leaders have a chance to renew it and build on their commitments to this important area. Because as world leaders know, providing money to address maternal mortality is only a start. To really make a difference, we must build on the momentum from meetings like Women Deliver and the G8 earlier this year and continue to support plans that ensure success.

The Maputo Plan is a critical milestone for demonstrating Africa's commitment to women's health before the Millennium Development Goal Summit at the United Nations in New York City this September. At the UN Summit, the world will review the progress we've made toward achieving the MDGs, and will consider what more we need to do to improve health and development across the world over the next five years.

This year's African Union Summit comes at a crucial time. This is our chance to make a major difference in the lives of Africa's women and their families, and to show the world that Africa is committed to making progress, not just promises. Let's make sure we follow through.

Jotham Musinguzi, MD, MPH, is the Africa Regional Director of Partners in Population & Development. Jill Sheffield is the Founder and President of Women Deliver.