03/08/2011 03:15 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

International Women's Day 2011: A Time for Recommitment to Maternal Health

As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day, we have much to feel good about. Opportunities for women are vastly better today in 2011 than they were in 1911 -- and since 1920, we have even been able to vote in the United States! Economic opportunities for women are also vastly improved, as is political participation.

But, today, I want to talk about one special issue: maternal health. While maternal mortality has declined globally by more than one-third over the last 30 years in part because of the commitment to millennium development goal (MDG) 5 to reduce maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015, serious problems remain. The success in some highly populated countries such as China masks the lack of success in others. The World Health Organization's analysis released in fall 2010 reported that 358,000 women died in 2008 during pregnancy and childbirth. Sixty-five percent of these deaths were in 11 countries, including India and Nigeria. Nearly 90 percent of the deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.

If these numbers sound dry, let me say it another way. The probability that my 15-year-old neighbor in Washington, D.C., will eventually die from a maternal cause is one in 43,000. If I instead lived in sub-Saharan Africa, the probability would be one in 31; if I were in South Asia, one in 120; and if in Afghanistan specifically, one in 11.

CEDPA has been committed to maternal and reproductive health since its inception 35 years ago. In 1999, CEDPA helped form the White Ribbon Alliance in India, which has made great strides in advocating for safe motherhood in that country. CEDPA India still acts as the organization's secretariat. On this International Women's Day, we recommit ourselves to expanded action. All of us who care about women's health -- whether we are members of the White Ribbon Alliance; the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health; the Maternal Health Task Force or any other advocacy group -- must call for expanded resources and expanded commitment by countries around the world.

This includes two very specific pleas. First, the U.S. Congress must protect robust funding for women's health programs in its budget debates and appropriations for 2011 and 2012; and, second, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria must better integrate maternal health into its interventions. Regarding the latter, we are pleased that the Global Fund has agreed to "explore further..." We hope that exploration will indeed lead to greater investment in women's health.

The number of women dying needlessly in the developing world is clearly unacceptable. Let us this International Women's Day commit ourselves to do better. Let us all become outspoken advocates. Please join CEDPA and its 5,300 plus alumni, many of whom are advocating around the world for their governments to invest more in women's health, in this call to action. Regardless of where you are, become an advocate. Join one of the many formal alliances, partnerships or task forces. Make your voice heard for women around the world.