It's Time to Make Mothers a Priority

The simple fact that, today, an African-American man is in the White House just shows what is possible and how quickly momentous change can happen if enough people want it. However, some things have not changed in recent decades. 1 in 6 mothers still die from the most deadly killer of women of reproductive age in Africa -- childbirth. We say goodbye to our mothers and sisters as they go into labor, and we know too well that a pregnant woman in Kigali or Freetown has one foot in the grave.

The shocking reality is that according to the United Nations, maternal mortality rates are higher now than in 2000. 99% of these deaths occur in the developing world. In Sierra Leone, a woman's chance of dying in childbirth is 1 in 8. Although indications are that this alarming rate is dropping, it is still avoidably high. And more shocking still, nearly all of these deaths could have been prevented with basic medical care.

The Millennium Development Goal which committed the world to reducing maternal mortality by 75% by 2015, and to make mothers a priority, is failing. This target, which if prioritized, could unlock so much of our continent's potential, has achieved the least progress. But there is still time as we countdown to 2015.

Maternal deaths in our countries, like the vast majority of maternal deaths worldwide, occur as a result of preventable and treatable causes like hemorrhage, obstructed labor, eclampsia and sepsis. Our midwives, nurses and doctors make us proud and do their best with the facilities at their disposal. But they need the numbers and resources to do their job. Countries with credible, costed plans based on strong health systems and effective delivery mechanisms should not fail through lack of funds. This means our Governments must prioritize resources for health in order to realize the commitments they made to spend at least 15% of GDP on health. It also means donors delivering on their end of the bargain.

Our experience in Sierra Leone also shows that attitudes, cultural norms and traditions play a significant role in a mother's decision to seek medical care at crucial periods during pregnancy and childbirth. Poverty is also a huge factor affecting the decision about whether, and when, a woman seeks medical attention. Alongside efforts to strengthen our health systems I have launched a campaign in my country to tackle the non-medical causes and contributory factors which so influence maternal health. We need to change attitudes and behavior, and engage with traditional and religious leaders to effect change at local level where decisions to seek medical care are taken. We also need to make health care affordable and accessible for all pregnant women and children.

We know that when women survive childbirth, their children grow up safe and strong. Healthy women mean healthier families, healthier communities and healthier nations. We know maternal mortality can be reduced; not in the time of our grandchildren, not in the time of our children, but in our time.

Maternal mortality has sadly become the rule not the exception. But this can change. We have the knowledge and the skills to deliver -- we just need the political will and resources to support us.

Last year's G8 recognized these needs and agreed comprehensive recommendations to strengthen health systems. The only thing that was lacking was the money to implement them. When G8 leaders meet next week in Italy they should agree to fill this financing gap. Working together makes for a better world and its time to make mothers a priority.