In a cavernous convention center in the heart of the Nation's Capitol, thousands of people have gathered to celebrate the role of women in the well-being of families, communities and nations. They are also gathered to push for improvements in maternal and newborn health. Women in native dress from all over the world stride purposefully through the spacious hallways -- midwives, doctors, advocates, lawyers, mothers and grandmothers, Parliamentarians, elected officials, Hollywood stars, and wide-eyed young people. It is a colorful tapestry of ethnic, age, and geographic diversity.
There are also First Ladies from five nations, as well as the Crown Princess of Denmark. And yet, despite the glittery presence of people like the Secretary General of the United Nations, the philosophy of the conference's founder is that we are all here to learn and thus all are equals. Jill Sheffield, founder of Women Deliver, is beaming as she stands in the first plenary session looking out at the thousands who share her vision of a safer world where nations are adequately investing in their women citizens.
"Invest in women. It pays" is the theme of the conference. Perhaps that's what makes it so galling that American anti-abortion advocates are excoriating Women Deliver. They claim that the conference is a cover for some sort of worldwide conspiracy to force abortions on women everywhere. They say the conference is anti-women. It would be laughable if they weren't so loud in their claims. Some of the worst of the Women Deliver deniers are at the conference; one can only hope they will actually listen to what is being said. At a midwifery pre-conference, women from many countries talked about how to ensure that more babies are born healthy. At the opening plenary, UN Secretary General urged people from all disciplines to work together to lower rates of maternal mortality. And everywhere there is the passionate belief that women should lead lives that are healthy and respected. Reproductive health is not abortion, and mentioning the word does not subsume every other part of reproductive health.
Among the official plenaries and workshops, there is a robust sharing of stories. There is also an awareness of our own birth stories and the stories of our children's births. Yesterday a midwife from Ghana told of a special millet tea that women drink after giving birth to help with lactation. Another woman told of early marriages in Mali that result in pregnant 11 year olds. It's hard not to compare my own experience in the U.S. with that of others. But most of all, the halls of the convention center are bathed in hope. Perhaps the G20 nations will elevate maternal health to a much greater priority. Perhaps we can collectively bolster the work of one another and steel ourselves against those who are focused on only one issue to the detriment of all of us. Perhaps we can even make enough noise to induce President Obama to take the short limo ride over to the convention center to honor his own mother, wife, daughters and each of us.
Perhaps someday "women deliver" will be not only a clever turn of phrase but also a promise of prosperity, good health and hope no matter where you are born on this planet.