America's Restored Funding to UNFPA Sends Strong Message to Women Worldwide

04/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today's action by President Obama restoring funding to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, sends a strong message to the world's women that the new president's promise of change is more than just a political slogan. The impact of the decision -- to release $50 million to UNFPA for family planning, HIV prevention and improving maternal health -- will be felt in communities and villages around the globe. While the funding is needed and much appreciated, even more important is the shift in U.S. policy to support reproductive health and women's rights worldwide.

As the head of UNFPA for the past eight years, I have traveled the world and can tell you that the issues of women's rights and reproductive health have in the past been egregiously neglected by the international community.

I have seen overcrowded maternity wards where women are desperately waiting for the medical interventions that can save their lives. Most women had first gone to local nurses or semi-skilled traditional birth attendants for care, then came to the hospital when they developed complications.

Every day, my colleagues get reports of women bleeding to death, dying from high blood pressure, infections, complications from HIV and other childbirth injuries.

These women become one of the 536,000 who die every year of pregnancy-related causes. This corresponds to one woman dying each minute in childbirth -- mostly in Africa and Asia -- making maternal mortality the largest health inequity in the world.

Today a woman in Niger faces a 1 in 7 chance of dying during childbirth compared to a 1 in 4800 risk for a woman in the United States.

It is the accumulation of risk factors -- including poverty, marginalization, gender inequities, poor roads and infrastructure, the lack of water and sanitation and, of course, insufficient health care systems -- that explains this major gap in maternal health. Eliminating unintended pregnancies would reduce maternal mortality by 20 percent or more. Yet more than 200 million women lack access to proper fertility treatments or birth control.

The women who die are just the tip of the iceberg. More than 2 million women are living with the fistulas -- devastating childbirth injuries that are easily preventable with proper medical care during delivery. They suffer through days of painful, obstructed labor only to give birth to a dead baby and be left with a damaged body that leaks urine and sometimes feces. If this is not horrible enough, many are shunned by their husbands and families and left isolated and ashamed. But, of course, the real shame belongs to a world that allows such atrocious neglect to continue.

Fistulas were eliminated in wealthy countries more than a century ago thanks to birth control and advancements in child birth medicine, namely caeserian sections, but it persists in poor nations with weak and crumbling health systems.

In Ethiopia and Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to visit hospitals that offer surgical services to women with fistulas and there are few sights more joyful than seeing a woman's hope and dignity restored with successful medical treatment.

Good leadership and equitable policies make a big difference for women, especially when it comes to their reproductive health and rights. With the United States joining more than 180 countries that support UNFPA, the world's women have reason to hope that their reproductive health and rights will be more strongly promoted.