27 March 2012

Nigeria: Time to Deliver for Girls and Women On Maternal, Reproductive Health

Photo: Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
A mother plays with her young son in the Kenyan village of Mwea.


A Few weeks ago, on March 8, the world celebrated International Women's Day, which serves as a clarion call to honor girls' and women's contributions to their families, communities and nations. As our global population swells to over seven billion, we must heed this call by working to ensure that every girl and woman lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Here in Africa, we are doing just that. On 27-28 March, policymakers, researchers and advocates from across the continent - including Nigerian Parliamentary Advocates for Population and Development CEO Hon. Saudatu Sani - are gathering in Kampala, Uganda, for a regional consultation on maternal and reproductive health.

At this meeting, convened by Partners in Population and Development and global advocacy organisation Women Deliver, experts will discuss lessons learned, best practices and challenges for improving the health and wellbeing of girls and women.

A woman in Nigeria has a 1 in 23 lifetime risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth, and this risk is even higher in other African countries. Hundreds of thousands more women are injured while giving birth.

In rural areas, the outlook for women and girls is often even bleaker. Rural girls and women are less likely to receive an education, own property or be financially independent, despite the contributions they make to our societies and economies. They are also less likely to receive the health services they need, such as family planning or skilled care before, during or after birth.

A recent study found that 640 rural women die during pregnancy and childbirth per every 100,000 live births, as compared to 447 urban women. Many women in rural areas do not have the financial resources and transportation needed to travel to far-off health facilities, and if they do make it to a facility, many encounter language barriers, unaffordable fees or shuttered doors.

Many of Africa's maternal deaths could be prevented with increased access to family planning services. Unfortunately, many women do not have this access. In Nigeria, for example, 17 percent of rural women want, but do not have access to, family planning services and, overall, only 10 percent of married women report using modern contraceptives regularly.

If we provide girls, women and their partners with family planning information and services we can empower them to decide the number, timing and spacing of their children - and whether they want to become pregnant at all. Intended pregnancies are safer and healthier pregnancies.

Despite the many challenges, there is some good news. According to the World Health Organisation, an estimated one-third fewer women worldwide are dying from complications during pregnancy and childbirth now than in 1990. In sub-Saharan Africa in particular, maternal mortality has declined by 26 percent over the past two decades.

We have also seen greater political commitment towards reducing maternal deaths. The Campaign on Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality (CARMMA), launched in 2009 with more than 30 African countries' support, sets clear pathways to reach measurable goals around maternal health.

The Office of the United Nations Secretary-General's Every Woman Every Child campaign and the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health are two global initiatives that have each convened government, civil society and corporate leaders to improve the lives of women and children.

The recent decline in maternal deaths in Africa and increase in political will are welcome signs that real and lasting progress can - and will - be a reality. The Kampala consultation will provide Africa's leaders with an unprecedented opportunity to work together to build on past successes and pave a way forward for improving the lives of girls and women in Nigeria and worldwide.

The time is now to deliver for girls and women. Let's join together to celebrate them every day by making their health and wellbeing a top global priority.

Dr. Jotham Musinguzi is Regional Director , Partners in Population and Development Africa Regional Office in Kampala, Uganda.

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