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Tragedy in Uganda and a Rare Opportunity to Deliver for Africa's Women

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These past few weeks especially, Kampala has been on my mind. Not least because of the senseless attacks that took place there last week. The injustice of terrorism is confounding, and it is a tragedy that innocent people pay the price. But Kampala is on my mind also because, amidst the grief over recent events there is an amazing opportunity. The city is host to the 15th African Union Summit.

The theme of this year's Summit, building on the momentum of Women Deliver and the G8 Summit in the past months, is "maternal, infant, and child health and development in Africa." I cannot imagine a more important theme for a meeting in Africa, taking place at a more momentous time. Millions of women across Africa still struggle to realize their rights and live healthy, fulfilled lives beneath the burdens of poverty, sexual violence and unplanned pregnancies.

But with peril there is also possibility. As Heads of State and high-level ministers from nearly every country in the continent convene in Kampala this week and next, there is a singular opportunity to deliver for women across Africa in a major way -- by renewing the Maputo Plan of Action.

Four years ago in Maputo, Mozambique, an intrepid group of African heads solidified the Plan of Action, which I would argue is one of the most progressive and forward-thinking international frameworks for sexual and reproductive health and rights ever penned. Signed into action in 2006, the Plan expires this year. Next week, African leaders can -- and should -- renew the plan through 2015, to align with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Maputo Plan of Action is a road map to prosperity and stability for Africa, and a clear strategy for achieving the MDGs. It outlines the steps necessary for reducing maternal mortality, addressing reproductive health needs, ensuring economic opportunities, and delivering a promising future for those who are essential in making the continent go round: women, of course.

Without ensuring the reproductive and maternal health of its women, Africa simply will not reach those elusive eight development goals. Africa has much to lose if the health and rights of its women are not prioritized, and African leaders and advocates know this. Powerful national and regional movements are already moving the reproductive health and rights agenda forward. For example, the Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA) was launched by eight countries last year and by ten more countries this year. It is a resounding call that governments across this vast continent understand the power and import of women.

Last month, my good friend Dr. Fred Sai, a leading Ghanaian physician, wrote about the need for African leaders to redouble efforts on maternal health, asking 'Where is Africa?' He asks us to support African efforts on maternal and reproductive health and we will -- by commending efforts underway and continuing to push for government accountability, increased budget lines, and speedier access to more innovative and effective maternal and reproductive health interventions.

Progress on this front has been slow, sometimes uneven, but consistent. Every time I visit Africa, as I touch down on the tarmac I remember my first trip there more than 40 years ago. I was 27 years old and volunteering at a family planning clinic at Pumwani Hospital in Nairobi, Kenya. I met a woman with a baby on her back and a baby on her front. She was tired, burdened and looking for family planning. She was 27 too. We connected and I was able to help her, ensuring that she got contraceptive supplies -- a small token but a powerful symbol for her that she was now in control of her body and her life.

But I think of the 200 million more women just like her, still in need of family planning and the millions more in need of other health services, opportunities to go to school, earn money, and realize their potential as human beings. The Maputo Plan of Action is a tool to address these persistent ills, and it encapsulates the innovation, vision, and commitment that African leaders have to offer on issues of sexual and reproductive and maternal health.

I recently wrote a letter to African Heads of State congratulating them on their efforts to prioritize sexual and reproductive health and urging them to continue full-force, renewing the Maputo Plan of Action this weekend. It is not often that leaders have the opportunity to actualize something so powerful, so promising, that they can help lead the way for advocates worldwide. I invite you to join me in adding your name here.

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