Africa: Women and Children the Focus of Achieving MDGs

Photo: Amnesty International/Anna Kari
Mother with her new-born baby.

With five years remaining to achieve the targets of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has made it clear that a concerted, multilateral effort to save the lives of over 16 million women and children, and improve the livelihoods of women and girls, will be the focus.

He announced the launch of a U.S.$40 Billion Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health at the UN Headquarters on Wednesday, the last day of the MDG summit. The strategy will integrate the actions of eight international health-related agencies to meet the health needs of women and children.

The plan aims to prevent the deaths of more than 15 million children under five, as well as 33 million unwanted pregnancies and the deaths of 740,000 women from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

The MDG summit and last July's African Union summit in Kampala, Uganda, focused much of their time on the idea that a renewed commitment and investment in the lives of women and girls is not only the right thing to do, but also the economically prudent thing to do.

Microcredit finance pioneer Muhammad Yunus once explained that his institution concentrated on loans to women not because the repayment rates among them were higher than men’s, but because the social impact of loaning to women was greater. “When they start making money, women first take care of their children,” Yunus said.

With the recognition of women as tools of social transformation, the Secretary-General said the 21st century “must be and will be different for every woman and every child.”

But there are still a lot of places in the world where women are “part human and part property,” said former U.S. president Bill Clinton. He spoke at the opening plenary session of the sixth annual meeting of the Clinton Global Initiative (CGI), held alongside the MDG summit. The CGI is a non-partisan organization that brings leaders together to devise and implement solutions to the world’s most pressing problems.

Among this year's attendees were: Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf; Muhtar Kent, chairman and chief executive officer of the Coca-Cola Company; Melinda French Gates, co-chair and trustee of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; and her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan.

Former president Clinton noted that the Gates Foundation was investing U.S.$1.5 billion to support women and girls in the next five years, especially in the maternal, newborn and child health, childbirth, family planning and nutrition programs.

Melinda Gates said the foundation had a special commitment to preventing childhood and maternal deaths. “We have like 345,000 women a year who die when they are in labor and there is something we can easily do about that,” she said.

She said that achieving MDGs 4 and 5, which deal with child mortality and maternal health, all boiled down to getting women the development assistance they need. “You’ve got to put the power in the women’s hands,” she said. “You have to give them a reproductive tool so they can decide when they want to have those children... and you have to make sure they have these life-saving interventions, whether it’s a vaccine or a mother learning if breastfeeding her baby exclusively will help keep that newborn alive.”

The Gates Foundation is working with the Nigerian and Ethiopian governments in building their health systems around MDGs 4 and 5.

At the CGI panel discussion on empowering women and girls, Liberia’s president said her government recognized that its greatest constituency and those to whom it owes its electoral focus are the women.

“We started with the basic fundamental of addressing girls’ primary education by making it compulsory and free,” said Johnson Sirleaf.

She said that improving the conditions of women in Liberia’s informal sector had given them some upward mobility. “Once they begin to work under different conditions and had a bit of literacy that they could understand the basic tenets of business, then they wanted to do trade and so we moved them into cross-border trade,” she said.

She noted that many Liberian women were farmers. To boost their income and production, she said her government worked with the World Food Program, which agreed to buy their produce. In addition, she said, the government has made additional efforts to protect the rights of women by putting in place tougher laws that make rape an offense with no bail.

On the same panel, Muhtar Kent talked about noticing a huge mismatch when he took over the helm of the Coca-Cola Company three years ago. There were mostly men in senior management, among the new recruits and among their bottling partners, while those who distributed their products were largely women.

“It was a no-brainer that we had to change this,” he said. “We were not tapping into the resources in the world properly; we have a mismatch and the future and picture of success is not what we have.”

Kent described Coca-Cola’s women entrepreneur projects in East Africa, saying the initiative came out of a CGI commitment he made that women would represent 50 percent of Coca-Cola’s new entrepreneurs.

“We’ve passed that target of 50 percent in seven African nations,” he said. “Those entrepreneurs that have come into being now employ an additional 8,000 people across the continent of Africa for a total of over 20,000 people.”

The image of women worldwide needs to change to eradicate poverty, said Queen Rania. She said the mental image of a woman sitting idle must be replaced by reality: many women in the developing world spend four hours a day fetching water. She said that amounted to 40 billion hours a year in sub-Saharan Africa alone, or a year’s labor for the entire workforce of France.

“These women are working hard,” she said. “But their time is not efficient. What needs to happen is that we need to free up women’s time so they can move up the value chain.”

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