On 27-28 March, policymakers, advocates and researchers from across sub-Saharan Africa gathered at Speke Resort Munyonyo, in Kampala, Uganda, to reaffirm national and regional commitments to Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5 – reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health - reducing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health.
At the regional consultation, convened by Partners in Population and Development-Africa Regional Office and Women Deliver, leading experts discussed lessons learned in maternal, sexual and reproductive health and identified barriers to meeting the needs of girls and women in the lead-up to the 2015 MDG target date and beyond.
I have read all the speeches and all the presentations that were made at this function, but I was completely overwhelmed by the short but powerful speech that was given by Nargis Shirazi one of the 25 youth advocates present at Munyonyo.
She said 'we know that young people, particularly young women and adolescent girls, are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to sexual and reproductive health and rights.
- Complications during pregnancy or childbirth are the leading cause of death for girls aged 15 to 19 in developing countries.
- Unplanned pregnancy rates continue to be high across the world, and almost half of all unsafe abortions are to women under 19.
- Young people, aged 15 to 24, account for nearly 40% of all new HIV infections worldwide'.
The MDG report 2011 states that despite advances in many countries in reducing maternal deaths, sub-Saharan Africa of which has the highest maternal mortality in the world! 640 maternal deaths per 100 000 live births in 2008 which is more than twice the average in developing regions and 38 times the average in developed regions. (In Uganda the 2006 DHS figures showed 435 per 100,000)
'I may be young and one might think I may not have that much experience to stand up and talk about maternal and sexual and reproductive health, but I have this to say: At university in my very first year, one of my roommates almost died as a result of an illegal abortion' She continued.
She added that 'At the UNOPS/Millennium Villages Project in Ruhiira, I have seen women carrying babies, followed by 3 to 4 other infants; digging in the early mornings as their husbands sleep and wake up at midday to go for a drink at the nearest bar. I have worked in the slums of Kampala and seen mothers watch their children die from malnutrition because they have too many mouths to feed'
'One specific encounter I can never forget is one where a teenager told me she wanted to commit suicide during a counseling session. She was pregnant and did not want her baby. When I asked why she wanted to end her life she said "I am depressed and disturbed and cannot live with this baby any longer because every time I look into the mirror, I see the woman I could have been!" She added.
Shirazi said, 'We may be young, but we have unique experiences. We may be young, but we have stories to tell'.
But for me what attracted me more from her speech which I did not listen to physically but rather sourced after the meeting, were the naked challenges she threw at the policy makers and experts present.
'And these stories and statistics are vital for the formulation and implementation of policies at grassroots levels. These stories and statistics paint a scary picture. But, I'm here today to tell you that young people can spur action and turn these statistics around.
Young people, when given a voice, can drive change. Our perspective, our experiences, and our willingness to ask tough questions offer hope for challenging the social norms and old policies that harm girls and women. When we are engaged, informed, and empowered, we can advocate for ourselves and create solutions that save the lives of girls and women'. She continued.
And she poured out the feelings of the young people openly and freely thus: 'As I look into this vast crowd - I know there is power, power right here to make the difference in the lives of millions of young people.
- The power to change marriage laws so girls can remain girls, not brides.
- The power to make girls' education a priority - no investment is more effective for achieving development goals than educating girls.
- The power to reject policies that discriminate against young people and deny their sexuality and their autonomy over their own lives and bodies.
-The power to provide safe, accessible, affordable, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health care and family planning services - family planning is a key solution to reducing maternal mortality, yet young people still face serious barriers and discrimination in accessing these LIFE-SAVING contraceptives and services.
- The power to implement comprehensive sexual education programs that are accessible in and out of school'.
Dear reader, Shirazi is talking to you, each one of us, parent, teacher, preacher, trader, local council member, member of parliament, soldier, student, farmer, speaker, chairman, man and woman, youth and children, boys and girls, people of all religions, fisherman and woman, business people, politicians and comedians name it.
And don't deceive yourself that it doesn't concern you. All of us are concerned, because when we talk about a woman, we are talking about somebody's mother, when we talk about a girl we are talking about somebody's sister and you are that somebody.
So clearly, we all have a stake in preventing the death of millions of women and children, who die from causes that are purely preventable. To the policy makers, stop the jargon because the time to act is now. To us the public let us play our part.
In her speech, at the same function, the First Lady, MP and Minister for Karamoja affairs, Janet Kataha Museveni summed it up: 'The tragedy of maternal death does not end just at the loss of the mother. The children left behind experience untold sufferings. Every year, millions of children are left motherless and vulnerable because of maternal deaths. Children who have lost their mothers are 10 times more likely to die before the age of five, compared to those who have not. For every woman who dies in pregnancy and child birth, six others survive but with chronic debilitating injuries and chronic ill-health --- such as obstetric fistula, which is a dehumanizing condition'
She added '.........globally we lose not just women and children and their lives. We also tremendously lose on productivity and the economic contribution they would have made to society'.
The Secretary General of The United Nations Ban Ki Moon, in September 2010 said: 'Each year, millions of women and children die from preventable causes. Their suffering is unacceptable in the 21 Century. We must, therefore do more ...... The answers lie in building our collective resolve to ensure universal access to essential health services and proven, lifesaving interventions as we work to strengthen health systems'.
Sometimes I ask myself whether our leaders at all levels read these statements!
Otherwise, that is how pathetic the situation is. Therefore, let us stand shoulder to shoulder as Shiraz is asking us, so that together we can save the lives of our mothers and our sisters.