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Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown

Posted: September 24, 2010 12:29 PM

This week has been an important one for girls and women at the United Nations. It has also been significant for the first formal acknowledgment that the millennium developments goals (to substantially reduce poverty around the world by 2015) won't be met on current progress. More than that, it is the number of maternal and infant deaths that are the furthest off track.

Thankfully the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has used this week to launch a new strategy to specifically improve the health of girls, women and children. We saw good commitments from some governments but notable omissions from some of the most powerful nations so the campaign to get all those leaders to do better continues.

This week I chaired the first annual women: inspiration and enterprise symposium in new york working with my co-hosts Arianna Huffington and Donna Karan. It was an energizing gathering, drawing women from all over the world to identify our individual contributions, what makes us passionate, figure out exactly how to play our part, and how to set off on the path to make that happen.

It was also a day to learn more about how we fulfill our collective responsibility; how we cooperate with each other; how we collect together all our actions and how we can create real change and can make a genuine difference. This was why i was particularly delighted to see young advocates from the white ribbon alliance and the 50 'America's next leaders' -- all dynamic young champions for women.

Alongside our future high achievers, the WIE symposium collected together many women who have achieved so much already -- whether in the middle or at the peak of their careers -- or as one friend of mine said -- "I am in my mid-fifties and know what I do, but I am looking for a way to give something back too -- if I can figure it out". It is what we all want: to figure out what more we can do to help all women and children around the world.

Such a gathering of women gives us a forum to talk about critical feminist issues and to recognize the power imbalances that exist especially for the most vulnerable women in the world. It gives us the power to act to harness the contribution women can make -- and deserve to make.

Many of us also live in a world of unprecedented opportunity for girls and women, for which we have to thank our pioneering mothers and grandmothers and all the men that supported them.

The challenge now is to find empowerment for all women around the globe. We only need to turn on the TV or read the news to know that in 2010, girls and women still bear the brunt of injustice, poverty and inequality.

In the New York Times best seller Half the Sky, we learned that more girls have been killed in the last 20 years, precisely because they are girls, than men were killed in all of the battles of the twentieth century. It is heartbreaking just to try to compute what that means in real terms.

Every life lost is precious and leaves a hole in a family. A lost daughter. A lost mother. A friend. A sister.

It is a huge and terrible waste, and a violation of human rights beyond our worst imaginings.

Girls and women have a special role to play if we are serious about ending poverty, encouraging development and promoting equality. We literally cannot do it without them.

Healthy, educated girls break the cycle of poverty. Healthy women work more productively and earn more for their families. Children whose mothers have been educated for at least five years are 40% more likely to live beyond the age of five.

Where women are sufficiently valued and empowered to access basic health care before, during and after pregnancy and childbirth, they live. Where they are poor and marginalized, they die, of almost entirely preventable causes. And when a mother dies so do all the great things she can achieve for her community and her family.

I believe (and I'm not the only one -- just look at the swathe Melinda Gates cut through the UN this week) that good maternal and infant health is at the very heart of development.

All of us can join the growing movement across the world. A movement that started a decade ago with the march of thousands of women to the Taj Mahal, a monument to a much loved wife who died in childbirth. A movement now joined by women in 140 countries; joined by health workers, community workers and academics, by actresses, supermodels and media personalities, by politicians and non-governmental organizations, and by citizens everywhere who join to voice their support.

Advertisements, social media, personal presentations, large and small gatherings, music convoys, temporary tattoo parlors at hip festivals: all kinds of means have been used to get our message heard by the decision makers and leaders around the world. Everyone is playing their part in the best way that they can.

And the campaigning has had an impact at the top, and amongst the grassroots too.

This summer, the white ribbon alliance's East Africa caravan traveled 9,000 miles, reaching tens of thousands of women, men and children in towns and villages with the message that dying in childbirth is preventable and unacceptable. Along the way, 50,000 people signed the "Act Now: No Woman Should Die While Giving Life" petition to African Union leaders. That, along with the tireless work of the African Union's commissioner of social affairs, Bience Gawanas [who runs the Carmma campaign], led to a re-commitment from all Africa's leaders to spend 15% of their national budgets on health and a new commitment to speed up progress to improve maternal and child health.

On a local level, the national alliance in India has helped women take up their right to health care by learning about their health entitlements including a payment they receive if they give birth in a registered clinic. Between 2006 and 2008, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of women taking up this right in India.

It is clear that we know what to do. It is not difficult. And with the right level of attention and investment we can stop the deaths. Indeed, recent figures show that maternal mortality rates are falling.

Good news to inspire us but there is more to do. We are making gains but we are still off track to meet the maternal and infant health millennium development goals in many countries. Internationally, investment in maternal health is still too low. 53 out of the 68 countries with the worst maternal health suffer from a severe shortage of health workers.

So what do we do? We need to make a pledge to act for girls and women. Take your creativity, talent, expertise, fundraising skills and networks and find a way to apply it to our cause.

The 100th anniversary of international women's day next 8th March is fast approaching. The WRA in India is planning a repeat of the famous march to the Taj Mahal. I hope that in each of our countries we can find a place to be or a place to march to show our support. This will be a day to celebrate our progress as women and commit to get the rest done.

Everyone at WIE made pledges to act and i hope everyone reading this can commit to do something for the 100th International Women's Day and beyond.

Everything we do makes a difference. I hope today you find way to make yours.

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