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Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown

Posted: September 24, 2009 04:47 PM

It's good to be back in New York for the United National General Assembly this week. It is undoubtedly one of the most important times of the year for making progress on the world's most pressing issues.

Last year, thanks to the work of a range of women and men from all walks of life, we were successful in getting the health of girls and women onto the global agenda. The G8 discussed maternal health for the first time ever and President Jakaya Kikwete, then chair of the African Union, made a priority of maternal health. This year that commitment has been enshrined in the Africa Union's Campaign to Accelerate Reduction in Maternal Mortality in Africa led by Bience Gawanas, the AU Social Affairs Commissioner. And Bience and I are co-chairing the Leadership Group on Maternal and Newborn Mortality under the wing of the Global Leader's Network.

At the UN this time last year President Zoellick of the World Bank and my husband, Gordon Brown, launched a new taskforce to look into innovative ways of financing health to respond to the growing movement. This High Level Taskforce has done its work over the last year by consulting experts in health and financing and now has a set of recommendations around which there is real consensus forming. Even this afternoon the taskforce mobilized $5.3 billion and extended free health care to millions more pregnant women and children.

All of this represents really significant progress on a topic that has otherwise remained silent and hidden.

I believe we are at a turning point. Bience and I have just met with Nick Kristof and Sheryl DuWunn, authors of new best-seller Half the Sky that speaks up for the most vulnerable girls and women in the world, devoting a great section of the book to maternal health. So successful is the publication that it is going on Oprah -- so no one in the USA will be able to miss the message. This week girls and women is certainly the subject being discussed around New York, at home for me in the UK, around the world. And this year's UN General Assembly has given me the great privilege of being able to add my voice to this important issue which is justifiably receiving a great deal of attention.

The issue of girls and women is, I am sure, one that is here to stay. It is transformative and unlocks the key to everything else. Where the lives of girls and women are at risk or compromised, understanding that we must and can save them is the means by which we will save and care for everyone.

Saving and improving the lives of girls and women is central to tackling every issue -- whether poverty, nutrition, education, child health, economic prosperity, environment -- of, in short, saving the world. And one of the greatest gaps has been in addressing maternal health which has prevented the achievement of any real development progress for decades.

Do you know that it is still the case that well over 500,000 girls and women die every year during childbirth -- that's one a minute. And for every mother that dies, 20 -- perhaps 30 -- times that number are left permanently injured. And of those that die, the vast majority are victim to easily preventable causes.

For millions of women getting pregnant and approaching childbirth means fear and trepidation of death rather than joy and anticipation for life.

We know that if a mother dies in childbirth her newborn child will be 10 times more likely to perish in those first important few months of life -- especially girls. Her oldest female child may be forced to stay at home to care for her siblings, or worse be forced in to an early marriage to help relieve the financial burden on the family.

We know that a girl who receives an education, is more likely to marry later, more likely to have her first child later and more likely to survive childbirth -- and a mother's presence in her child's life makes all the difference -- she is willing to address whatever challenges her child faces as no one else will.

And the importance of reducing maternal deaths does not stop there:

I don't believe that we will make the progress on HIV/AIDS without addressing maternal mortality.

We will not make the progress we want on malaria without addressing maternal mortality.

We will not make progress on getting more children to school without reducing maternal mortality.

When a mother survives a lot survives with her.

This is not just a women's problem. This is everyone's problem. Solve it and you see a whole world of change.

We all want to see rising standards of health and education across the globe. We all want an end to gender violence, trafficking, and systemic abuse of girls and women the world over. We all want to save and improve the lives of children around the world. Good health care and support for special needs, access to education, an end to children living in poverty without access to many of the basic provisions of life.

We all have our various approaches, and know the different contributions that we make.

But whatever we do, it is clear that we must put girls and women at the heart of what we do. We need to invest in girls and women. And if we do -- this will have an impact at every stage of their life cycle.

It is sobering to look at the data published by the Nike Foundation's and Novo Foundation's Girl Effect project. More than a quarter of the population of Asia, Latin America, the Caribbean, and sub-Saharan Africa are girls and young women aged 10 to 24. Yet only half a cent of every international development dollar goes to those same girls and women. 99.5 per cent goes elsewhere.

The perceived economic value of a girl is zero from day one of her life in so many parts of the world and her only asset is her body -- at risk from early marriage, HIV, early pregnancy and domestic violence.

What organisations as diverse as corporate foundations like Nike's, Novo's, Exxon Mobil's and Goldman Sachs', and girl's education charity Camfed and the safe motherhood advocates, the White Ribbon Alliance and the World Food Programme have understood is that early investment in girls and women -- with education, good nutrition and economic empowerment -- yields the greatest of results with rising economic contributions of those invested-in girls and women for themselves, their families, their communities and our world.

And the costs are so low. One hundred dollars a year to educate a child, boy or girl. Perhaps a little less to feed a child, boy or girl. And from my efforts, I know for maternal health alone a package of just $1.50 per person would make real improvements in women's health in the countries where 95% of maternal and child deaths occur.

So what of this changing tide of opinion for girls and women? This growing movement -- that you can see rapidly emerging. A common understanding that girls and women are at the center of the development agenda. No longer an afterthought. No more on the sidelines. But at the core of long term sustainable development. At the core of providing a better future for everyone.

Girls and women are key to unlocking progress. And now we are at a turning point. Right now I am concerned that we are at the point where we could get it right and we musn't blow it.

Gordon wrote an article jointly with Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf recently on taking women's rights seriously -- that Arianna Huffington posted here -- in it they said, "It is in the interests of boys and men to do everything in their power to unleash the potential of girls and women and to champion their rights, because without their contribution we are the poorer. So we will not rest until boys and men are persuaded to join our cause and change their lives and our world."

It is timely for everyone to engage in building the momentum to achieve long overdue justice for the most vulnerable girls and women -- and to understand that it helps us all. The edition of Newsweek just out even claims the untapped potential of women could be the solution to the world recession.

Economic, social and cultural progress lies in every country empowering their female populations. Full participation by women in economic and political decision making is essential. And we all need to be saying that -- not just a few leaders. And we all need to work hard to make sure that happens.

It will not be enough to say that the generation before mine were the feminists, we have to be the generation that makes it happen. With no country excused.