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On the Eve of the G8: Waiting for the Rubber to Hit the Road

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Prime Minister Stephen Harper couldn't make it to the Women Deliver conference earlier this month, where nearly 3,500 advocates and leaders from 146 countries gathered to support action on maternal health, but thankfully his Minister of International Cooperation, Bev Oda, could. She will surely carry back to Canada the message that rang out from the thousands of voices present: it's time to deliver for women. Invest in women, it pays.

On the eve of the G8 and G20 Summits, Harper should heed this message and consider carefully as he gets ready to unveil the Muskoka Iniative -- hopefully a plan with a bold vision and a significant funding scheme. After the tremendous momentum that has built around maternal health as a key development issue, the G8 Summit should not be a denouement but an important stepping stone on the way to achieving our goal.

Despite promising progress on global maternal mortality, simply far too many women continue to die in pregnancy and childbirth. In the words of the amazing Leymah Gbowee, head of the Women's Peace and Security Network -- Africa, "can you step it up a bit?"

I was in Toronto last week for the (G)irls 20 Summit, and was overwhelmed by the ambition, insight, and potential of the young women from around the world represented there. I was pleased to see several members of the Canadian Parliament at this important summit, as the voices of our young women are often not given the respect they clearly deserve. After all, these are our future mothers, our future doctors, and our future Prime Ministers.

We all have a stake in the health and livelihood of women and girls, on whose shoulders ride the well-being of their families, their communities, and their nations' economies. But Prime Minister Harper has laid claim to a particular stake by making it his signature issue at the G8 this year. For that, I and my fellow maternal health advocates applaud him. But with such great gesture comes even greater responsibility.

If Prime Minister Harper can deliver a plan that is well-funded, comprehensive, and can be put into action, the world may well meet Millennium Development Goal 5, including the reduction of maternal mortality by three-quarters, by 2015. We may have a shot at breaking the grave trend of maternal death that has haunted the lives and futures of our women for decades.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made an important step forward when Melinda Gates, Co-Chair of the Foundation, announced at Women Deliver the commitment of US$1.5 billion for maternal and child health over the next five years. Other global leaders should now follow suit, and Canada most especially. Investment in maternal and reproductive health is a development decision that should be made in light of the recent global financial crisis and not in spite of it. We do not need another drop in the bucket.

Maternal health is a complicated issue but there are proven interventions and tools at the ready, including access to family planning, access to safe abortion when and where legal, and access to skilled care before, during, and after pregnancy and childbirth. There is clearly much to do, and many facets that need to be funded. Therefore it's time to move above the fray and get serious about improving maternal health worldwide.

As some very sensible proposals put forth have suggested, G8 countries may contribute to various aspects of maternal health that they are most equipped to. The overall plan should be comprehensive, but issues like family planning can be funded by certain governments and donors while other equally critical aspects such as nutrition, infant mortality, and health worker training, can be funded by others. The underlying key is that the plan is based on scientific evidence and cost-effective solutions we know work.

As we held the closing plenary at the Women Deliver conference just weeks ago, and I looked out at 3,500 glimmering faces in the crowd, I thought we CAN deliver. Now I ask, Prime Minister Harper, will you deliver?