Midwives4All: Professionals Who Put Women First Have the Power to Change the Future

03/08/2015 04:16 pm ET | Updated May 08, 2015

Today, on International Women's Day, Sweden is speaking out in support of every woman's right to a midwife. The midwifery profession and workforce have the power to save thousands of lives each year.

They therefore deserve our full recognition and respect. High maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity, including devastating consequences such as stillbirth, need to be tackled urgently. In 2013 alone, an estimated 289,000 women died from complications related to pregnancy. Every year, nearly 3 million infants die in the first month of life and 2.6 million babies are stillborn.

The basic right to health and access to quality services for women and children is particularly important in crisis situations, including in conflict and post-conflict areas, and in regions affected by epidemics.

Last year, the Lancet published a series of articles on how scaling up the skilled midwifery workforce could prevent close to two-thirds of maternal and newborn deaths. The series was accompanied by a major report by UNFPA, WHO and the International Confederation of Midwives, outlining the state of midwifery in 73 countries. Together, they represent a significant effort to highlight the importance of midwifery in saving lives and empowering women.

Based on these reports, and Sweden's international engagement in improving women's health, the Ministry for Foreign Affairs recently launched Midwives4All, an initiative to accelerate these efforts. We hope to spark engagement and more discussion on the benefits of investing in the midwifery workforce, while highlighting the benefits of evidence-based maternal health services.

Our aim is to strengthen women's rights, improve women's access to resources and increase women's representation. Midwives do not only improve the chance of a safe pregnancy and delivery; they provide the full continuum of care throughout a woman's life, and by doing so they play a key role in building sustainable societies. Yet, in many countries, this field of expertise is still not represented.

We are involving our embassies and the collaborative force of our networks to reach out in a connected world where citizens, organizations and decision-makers come together to take on urgent challenges. Using the best available data to inform our discussions, we will help to spread best practices that offer hope for women all over the world.

Why, you may ask. Because we are convinced it needs to be a top priority. Investing in midwifery is not only economically sound and life-saving. Midwifery transforms societies. It promotes women's human rights, women's health and gender equality as a whole.

In this way, Midwives4All is a part of the Swedish Government's ambition to pursue a feminist foreign policy, which aims to strengthen women's rights, improve women's access to resources and increase women's representation. This initiative will contribute in a very concrete way to these overriding objectives, and our ambition is to turn a piece of our own country's history into global progress.

In Sweden, midwives work alongside doctors and other health professionals and play a crucial role in health and welfare. This is one of the reasons Sweden invests in midwifery both nationally and internationally through Sida, our development agency. Sweden supports capacity building in countries ranging from Afghanistan, Zambia and Bangladesh to Somalia and Guatemala. Another reason is our commitment to human rights and equality as the basis for development.

As early as 1751, the Collegium Medicum reported to the Swedish Parliament that, "Of 651 cases of women who died in childbirth, 400 could have been saved if they had had adequate access to a midwife." At that time, the maternal mortality rate in Sweden was almost 900 deaths per 100,000 live births. This is higher than in almost any country in the world today.

One century later, Sweden's maternal mortality rate had decreased to 230 due to the presence of midwives throughout the country trained in safe delivery practices, including infection prevention. Investment in midwives later became a natural part in building our welfare state, where maternal and child health services were provided free of charge, with delivery wards and women's clinics leading to further reductions in maternal mortality.

The evidence is already out there. #Midwives4All therefore aims to connect people, to break the barriers that prevent change and bring together citizens, NGOs, midwives, policymakers and doers. We are seizing the opportunities offered by newer information technologies.

Let us begin by recognizing the midwifery profession as the life-saver and agent of change that it is and can be. I hope that many of you today will be able to join the conversation and work with us on a shared vision -- midwives4all.