Women of the world are crying out for your help

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Thursday, 12 March, 2009

More than 1,400 women will die today as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth. Graça Machel examines this humanitarian crisis and explores what we can do to stop it. This article first appeared in The Daily Telegraph.

Around the world today, more than 1,400 women will die as a result of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, either because they have no access to health care or cannot afford it. This is a humanitarian crisis that is affecting the poorest women in Asia, Africa and Latin America - and it is one that will continue, unless we commit ourselves to tackling the lack of effective medical care in many parts of the world.

In 2000, the United Nations set out eight Millennium Development Goals, to be achieved by 2015. These included a reduction in child mortality, improvements in maternal health and combating diseases such as HIV/Aids and malaria. Needless to say, we are falling far short.

Yes, funding for global health has more than doubled since 2000, saving millions of children and adults in some of the poorest countries. Yes, the rate of new Aids infections is starting to fall, and great progress is being made against malaria and TB. Yes, vaccines are reaching more children than ever, and there is more investment in new technologies for preventing and treating disease.

But the amount of money given by governments, aid agencies, foundations and individuals for health care remains fundamentally insufficient - scraps from the table of the rich, vulnerable to upswings and downswings in sentiment and levels of economic growth. Even before the current downturn, the amount being given was neither sufficiently large nor sufficiently predictable to do more than maintain the status quo.

There is a strange paradox here. We are more knowledgeable than ever. We have more resources than ever. We have and share more information than ever. So we should be more aware than we have ever been of the millions of people, especially women and children, left behind. We should realise that in my home country of Mozambique, as in much of Africa, a mother who gets sick will have older children who miss school to assume her responsibilities. It is very likely that the youngest children will not get enough to eat, and will get sick as well.

The situation gets even worse when a pregnant woman falls ill. Diseases such as malaria, Aids, tuberculosis and pneumonia are causes of many deaths among pregnant women, mothers and children. Although new preventative treatments are being developed, these efforts will be of little use without sufficient and sustainable health care services to make them accessible and affordable to all.

It has been estimated that more than four million health workers need to be recruited, trained and retained worldwide if there is to be any hope of operating effective national health-care systems where they are most needed.

Despite the financial crisis, innovative financing mechanisms are needed to complement present aid. Extra money must be channelled rapidly to fill gaps in health systems in developing countries and in the provinces and districts that are needed the most.

Gordon Brown, Robert Zoellick, the president of the World Bank, and other global leaders are working to find new ways for additional funding to run health-care systems throughout the developing world. They have set up a task force on Innovative International Funding for Health Systems, of which I am a member, which meets in London today to explore types of financing that will open up new income streams and make better use of existing domestic and international resources.

The work of the task force is urgently needed to save lives and to hold the international community to the commitments it has made to the children and mothers of our world, no matter where they are. I am convinced that there is hope for all mothers. It is in our hands to deliver it.

Graça Machel is president of the Foundation for the Development of the Community (FDC), Mozambique.

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