Two hours passed quickly at the “Accelerating Action on the MDGs: Delivering for Girls, Women and Babies” brunch on September 19th at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The event was organized by Women Deliver to convene country delegates around maternal health and women’s rights on the eve of the United Nations Summit on the Millennium Development Goals.
The event featured a number of passionate speakers who urged each delegate to demand action for women’s and girl’s rights at the UN Summit. In addition to Fred Sai, who spoke of the opportunity presented by the emerging priorities placed on women, girls and newborns (note inclusion of the latter!), the event’s speakers included Graca Machel, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen,Imane Khachani, Michel Sidibe and Safiye Cagar. (For more information on the speakers at the event, click here). After each speaker’s presentation, the audience, which included representatives from the UN summit delegations and a select few from the maternal, newborn and child community, discussed in round table groups the opportunities and challenges for achieving the MDGs
As a representative of one of the event’s sponsors, I was seated at a table with representatives from Indonesia, India, Japan, Poland and the US. They each cited promising initiatives as well as challenges in addressing the MDGs for maternal health and women’s rights. In Indonesia, the creation of a new post, Special Envoy for the MDGs (which reports directly to the President), bridges the silos among different ministries working on the MDGs and fosters partnerships with the private sector and NGOs. India and other countries have revolutionized the participation of women in economic activities and improved health through self-organized women’s groups that obtain loans from micro-credit banks and pool their capital to seed new enterprises. Challenges included the fact that despite having some of the world’s lowest mortality rates for mothers and infants, Japan’s parliament still blocks adolescents from accessing contraception. Our private sector colleague bemoaned the fact that organizations, whether corporations or NGOs, always wish to start something new, whereas what is needed is getting back to the fundamentals and investing in what works on a much larger scale.
The moderator of the discussion at my table was the admirable and incomparable Dr. Abhay Bang, the founder of SEARCH in Gadchiroli, India. His work—recruiting tribal women to visit households and provide a package of services before, during and after birth—has inspired community-based newborn care programs around the world. In Gadchiroli, providing simple care for babies at birth and identifying and treating sick newborns with gentamycin was found to reduce newborn deaths by 62 percent. Dr. Bang told me how he is inspired by a Gandhian tradition begun by his father in the time of the great man himself and now his own children are carrying on the work, one as a physician working for SEARCH and the other as a youth advocate and activist!
At the end of the discussion, Dr. Bang asked what message each person at our table would take back to their delegation about this event. We all agreed on the need to “listen to women,” which Dr. Bang’s organization does each year in a village assembly convened to set priorities for the year. He mentioned how villages in India are supposed to be administered through village councils that are made up by 50 percent men and 50 percent women. When the councils were mixed, men dominated discussions and men’s priorities did not always center on development (he cited various forms of entertainment as a male village council priority). It was not until the mandate changed to have women’s and men’s councils meeting separately but both twice a year that social issues reliably appeared on the agenda of these councils.
Overall, the event provided an opportunity for advocates of women’s rights, maternal health, newborn and child heath – in addition to a number of other causes -- to join together in making leaders at all levels accountable for the MDG commitments. Although the event did not really focus on the newborn beyond the “Babies” in the title, it was a step forward: the benefits of giving women their deserved place at the center of the worldwide agenda can only advance the cause of the silent and forgotten newborn.
Photo credits: Sam Hurd and Women Deliver
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