01/19/2012 11:00 am ET Updated Mar 20, 2012

The White Ribbon Alliance: 10 Years In

Picture this: a world where childbirth is the biggest killer of young, healthy women. A world where many girls and women have no choice about who they marry, or how many babies they have or when.

This is how it was when we began the White Ribbon Alliance a little more than a decade ago. In those days, the scandal of maternal and newborn death was scarcely known or acknowledged, especially in Western countries. While struggling to fix the problem from afar, the voices of those women most at risk in the poorest countries -- and those on the ground trying to save them -- were rarely heard.

The White Ribbon Alliance decided to do things differently.

Why not work globally and collectively, we said.

Starting at the grassroots, we brought together those who cared. To listen. To share. To take action.

We called on the big U.N. agencies and small charities, business people and journalists, health professionals and government officials, all over the world to add their voices in a groundswell of demand for change.

We chose the white ribbon as the emblem to unite us; white representing death in some cultures, hope in others. We became a growing band of volunteers, taking time out of our day jobs to connect with each other and figure out how to share scarce resources and open the doors to change.

India led the way in 2002 with the first White Ribbon Alliance march to the Taj Mahal, an iconic memorial to the Shah's young wife who died in childbirth centuries ago. The march attracted thousands of supporters, celebrities, ordinary women, health workers -- and the media, including CNN. The government of India began to listen. Policies were changed to allow nurses in India's half a million villages to perform life-saving procedures. In time, women won the right to free health care in childbirth. The death rates began to go down.

Africa learned from India. One midwife from Tanzania heard what was happening and went to Delhi to find out more. She came back to found the White Ribbon Alliance of Tanzania.

Less than a decade later there are 4,000 members in Tanzania alone, including WHO, Save the Children, UNICEF, the Nurses and Midwives Association, as well as hundreds of smaller groups and thousands of committed individuals. The President of Tanzania himself now joins every march on White Ribbon Day, and the government has changed its policies to train more midwives and give them jobs. The maternal death rate is dropping.

Ten years down the line White Ribbon Alliance has more than 20,000 members in 155 countries, and there are established National Alliances in 15 countries. Sarah Brown is our Global Patron, hugely contributing to the surge in political will for change.

This has led to unprecedented U.N. commitments of $40 billion in 2010, which have risen to $70 billion in 2011. And globally, we are seeing a significant decline in maternal death rates -- a one third reduction since 1990.

And yet we still have a long way to go. Childbirth remains the biggest killer of young women around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, half of women are still giving birth with only a family member or neighbor to help.

For the world still has less than one health worker for every thousand people. In India alone, over a million newborns die each year -- most from preventable causes -- while globally the figure is 4 million babies dying in the first month of life.

The $70 billion recently pledged by the U.N. is only half of what's needed -- and we have to push hard to make sure these pledges are delivered and spent where it will make the biggest difference. That means investing in the training of health workers, and giving them decent pay and conditions, so that they will stay in their jobs -- and take good care of mothers and babies.

A century ago, more women died in childbirth than men died in wars around the world. Starting in the 1930's, with advances in medicine and political will from governments of wealthier countries, the tide began to turn, so that dying in childbirth is now largely seen as a 'thing of the past' in countries like the U.S. and U.K.

So, we do know what to do and how to save women's lives; we just need the investment and political commitment to do it, for every woman, no matter where she lives.

The White Ribbon Alliance is pushing hard to make this happen.

Please make a donation and share this blog post with friends; together we can make needless deaths in childbirth a thing of the past.