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Liya Kebede

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Let's Make Mother's Day a Global Reality

Posted: 05/07/09 04:02 PM ET

Progress is being made to save the lives of mothers and newborns around the world. Still, every minute, a woman dies of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, leaving her baby more likely to die within two years. Most of these deaths could be prevented. Join The Huffington Post and the Mothers Day Every Day campaign in the global movement to call upon world leaders to invest in health workers and strengthen health systems so that every day, everywhere in the world, all women and newborns have access to lifesaving care.

There is a saying in Africa that to find out you are pregnant is to have one foot in the grave. It must sound strange to Americans, since becoming a mother is so celebrated here. But in the developing world, more women die from pregnancy and childbirth than any other cause. In my native Ethiopia, children are treasured, yet dying in childbirth is a fact of life. I now live in the U.S. and had my two children here, where death in childbirth is almost nonexistent, so I've lived the difference. That difference leaves me haunted by what pregnancy and childbirth means for so many women in places like Ethiopia.

Every minute, a woman dies in childbirth, mostly from preventable causes. Ninety-nine percent of those deaths occur in the developing world. No other health disparity is so stark; virtually every woman who dies giving birth lives in a poor country. And as horrific as this statistic is, it hides the true scope of the problem. For every woman who dies in childbirth, twenty more will suffer debilitating and often lifelong injuries. Injuries such as fistula -- literally a hole between the mother's vagina and her bladder or rectum that is caused by obstructed labor and avoided in the developed world through medical intervention -- often leave women isolated, rejected by their communities and unable to support themselves.

When a mother is harmed, her community is devastated. Her children are up to ten times more likely to die within two years. They are less likely to be immunized, more likely to be malnourished, more likely to contract HIV and more likely to be exploited. Older children are denied an education because they must care for siblings or work to feed their families. Much attention is justifiably paid to children's health issues but one of the best ways to protect a child's health and future is to protect his or her mother.

Maternal mortality isn't just a family tragedy or a problem for the developing world. It affects us all. We can't end poverty if we fail to save the lives of our world's mothers. USAID estimates that the world economy loses $15.5 billion dollars each year because of preventable maternal deaths. When we lose our mothers, we lessen productivity, deepen gender inequality and destabilize societies. When our mothers are alive and healthy, they do extraordinary things...like the mothers of Plaza de Mayo, who marched in Argentinean plazas, defying the military junta dictatorship and demanding the whereabouts of their abducted children...or the Liberian mothers who faced down civil war armed only with T-shirts and courage. If we are going to solve the unbelievable global challenges that face us all, we're going to need our mothers.

The good news is that we can prevent these deaths. The solutions are known and relatively inexpensive. The developed world has proven that eradication is possible over time, but other countries have demonstrated that serious progress is within reach quickly. Thailand, Egypt, Nepal and Honduras have each dramatically reduced maternal mortality in the last decade -- in stark contrast to the worldwide rate, which has fallen by less than one percent since 1990. Their individual programs varied, but each country shared an overriding strategic objective: a national commitment to reducing maternal mortality.

The United States has a historic opportunity to lead the fight against maternal deaths and we should seize it. There is a bill in the House of Representatives right now -- the Newborn, Child and Mother Survival Act of 2009 -- which would put saving mothers' and children's lives at the center of U.S. foreign aid. The Newborn, Child and Mother Survival Act of 2009 (H.R. 1410) establishes a comprehensive strategy to reduce deaths and bring cost-effective health tools within reach for the world's poorest nations. However, the bill won't even come up for a vote until our representatives know that voters understand that saving the lives of mothers must be central to our investments in the developing world. And governments won't invest in women's health until they know it is a voter priority. Call or write your representative and tell them that you expect them to support this bill.

And there are other ways to get involved. You can check out my Foundation's website -- www.theliyakebedefoundation.org or learn more from the Mothers Day Every Day U.S. advocacy campaign sponsored by the White Ribbon Alliance and CARE - www.mothersdayeveryday.org.

Investing in women's lives is an investment in sustainable development, in human rights, in future generations -- and consequently in our own long-term national interests.

Mother's Day is May 10th. This Mother's Day, remember to thank your mother, but also take a moment to voice your support for the health and safety of mothers worldwide.

The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood and CARE, two organizations at the forefront of global women's health issues, have joined Secretary Donna Shalala and UNICEF Executive Director Ann Veneman and a distinguished group of advocates to promote Mothers Day Every Day, a campaign that raises awareness and advocates for greater U.S. leadership to improve maternal and newborn health globally. To learn more, visit www.mothersdayeveryday.org.


Check out the rest of our Countdown to Mother's Day series by clicking here