07/11/2011 03:23 pm ET Updated Sep 11, 2011

Every Mother Counts Celebrates South Sudan's Independence

This weekend marked a milestone for the African continent. The Republic of South Sudan made its official debut -- a triumph for democracy and a marked fresh start for a region plagued by conflict for years.

It truly is worthy of a celebration -- the new nation faces enormous potential. But it also faces some significant challenges. And one of those hits home for me as an advocate for global maternal health. With Every Mother Counts we have tried to focus on the hardest hit countries in the world and one of them was just born this weekend. Sudan (as we formerly knew it) was already one of the most dangerous places for a woman to give birth- with the southern part of Sudan disproportionately burdened.

In 2007 the UN reported that rates of pregnancy-related deaths in southern Sudan were the highest in the world -- with 2,030 deaths per 100,000 -- whereas in the U.S. there are 17 deaths per 100,000. The south has very few medical facilities for it population, estimated at roughly 10 million and less than 5% of women have a skilled attendant by their side in childbirth. In fact, the New York Times reported Friday, that a 15-year-old girl in South Sudan has a higher chance of dying in childbirth than she does of finishing primary school.

Stacked in that light, the odds facing this infant country seem almost impossible. After all, in sub-Saharan Africa, the future of a country is in the bellies of its Mothers. But maternal health is too often perceived as one of those women-centric issues that too often falls off the priority list due to the general status of women, even though the returns from a healthy female population are tremendous: a woman who survives childbirth will herself raise healthier, more educated children. She will be more likely to get them vaccinated and educated. Those educated children will be more inclined to delay marriage and pregnancy. And those surviving women will live on to contribute as leaders in their families, their communities, and their economies.

South Sudan clearly has a long list of competing priorities to address in these early days of statehood. But the country will be well-served if leaders recognize the basic theme that has been resonating across the globe -- that if they prioritize the women and truly value their lives and their well-being, they will be giving themselves a tremendous leg-up in development terms.

It is easy to think that these challenges are so far removed from our own or that even as we read about the birth of a nation with interest, it is hard to feel at all connected to its people and its future. But I think that the international community can play a significant role in setting up South Sudan for a successful beginning by addressing some of their most basic needs and by prioritizing the health and well-being of its girls and mothers who truly DO hold the country's future.

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