"WIE need you" in the fight to save women's lives around the world! So say Arianna Huffington, Sarah Brown and Donna Karan, co-hosts of the first annual Women, Inspiration, Enterprise (WIE) symposium in NYC. Timed to underscore appeals to world leaders, WIE is at once a convention and a celebration, bringing together women at the forefront of politics, philanthropy, media, fashion, and the arts with young women from the US and developing countries who are already making a difference to change the world.
I sat cross-legged in Sharmila's kitchen, desperately trying to memorize her technique for making perfect roti, when I noticed the evening light catch Sajana's nose ring. Sajana's wide brown eyes expanded, demanding that I be silent. She darted for the door and managed to get one foot out into the Nepal summer air before Sharmila sent her right back inside to finish her English homework. Sajana is 14, about the same age her mother Sharmila was when she got married.
By 16, Sajana will be completely literate in both Nepali and English. She's already very close, and Sharmila's nagging (characteristic of a professional mother) keeps Sajana on track.
By 16, Sharmila was pregnant. In between batches of roti, she explained that she delivered all five of her babies in the home -- alone. Matter-of-factly, Sharmila noted that she was lucky; she only lost one baby in childbirth and she survived all of her labors -- a feat many women in the Jharuwarashi village of Nepal do not achieve.
Sharmila is not an outlier. In Nepal, only 18.7 percent of deliveries are attended by a skilled birth attendant, and 281 women die due to complications in pregnancy and childbirth for every 100,000 live births. During the monsoon, I trekked with women from Jharuwarashi through the mud for 45 minutes until we reached the road that could transport us to Patan Hospital, another 30 to 45 minutes away by microbus. I felt health care delivery crisis in the mud-caked around my ankles.
In Nepal and in low-resource areas throughout the world, health care delivery systems are failing women and their families. Approximately 536,000 women died due to complications in pregnancy or childbirth in 2005, 80 percent of whom could have been saved by basic access to family planning, antenatal, delivery and postnatal care.
As I sat cross-legged enjoying Sharmila's roti, I breathed a sigh of relief that she had been lucky. Had she experienced complications in pregnancy or labor, Sharmila might not be there, making roti and nagging Sajana. And then where would Sajana be? Maternal mortality not only destroys the lives of productive women, it also devastates the potential of their children, their communities and our world. Maternal mortality delays enrollment in school for younger children, increases the likelihood that older children drop out, and reduces the likelihood that children receive essential immunizations. With the support of her mother, Sajana is becoming an educated, healthy, and productive member of society. But in low-resource areas, where maternal mortality runs rampant, children and societies lose the potential to flourish.
Maternal mortality is a tragedy of global inequity that hurts communities and stymies global development. But if we refuse to tolerate this injustice -- if we commit ourselves to changing the health care delivery systems that fail poor, rural women and their societies -- we can eliminate this tragedy.
Closing the health-worker gap is one evidence-based strategy that will help us end the tragedy of maternal death in low-resource areas. When part of a health system with emergency obstetric care, networks of trained midwives have the potential to remove barriers to care and prevent unnecessary death. However, the developing world faces a 50 percent shortfall in skilled health workers necessary to deliver care to every mother.
At the Sept. 22 UN Millennium Development Goal Review, world leaders should make new investments to educate, train, and retain health workers and, in so doing, break down barriers women face in accessing lifesaving care. As the next world leaders, young women like me are already standing up against the preventable injustice of maternal death. On Sept. 20, I will gather with a group of women committed to positive social change at the Women: Inspiration and Enterprise Symposium. Together, we will invest in new ideas and strategies to uplift women, their families and our world. We will invest in ending the global health care delivery crisis for women. Because every girl deserves to have a nagging mother like Sharmila.
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Elizabeth Adler is a student at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, and will be attending the WIE symposium in NYC on September 20.
Check out the rest of the WIE series here.