STATEMENT BY H.E. Dr. Nkosazana C. Dlamini Zuma Chairperson of the African Union Commission to the
INTERNATIONAL CONFERENCE ON MATERNAL, NEWBORN AND CHILD HEALTH
Johannesburg, South Africa. 1 - 3 AUGUST 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen
It is indeed an honour for me to address the International Conference Maternal, Newborn and Child Health on behalf of the Commission of the African Union, in our effort to promote the health and welfare of women and children in Africa. A word of thanks to the President, Government and People of South Africa for hosting this conference with us.
Soon after its inception in October last year, the current Commission of the African Union agreed on eight priorities on which to focus special attention. Foremost among these priorities is the development of Africa's human capital.
Africa's most important resource is its people, there can therefore be no African Renaissance if thousands of women die every year giving birth and when our most precious and vulnerable, infants and children are not able to grow up and reach their full potential. Indeed, this is a priority and we have therefore no choice, but to implement with speed the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality (CARMMA).
This international conference on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health is, therefore, both timely and important because, before we can even talk about development of our human capital, those humans must be born and nurtured through a safe and wholesome childhood.
As we all know the health status/condition of a child, as well as its odds for survival and prospects to grow and develop, does not begin at birth. Rather, it starts way before with family planning choices and the health and nutrition status of the mother.
This requires the deepening of our quest for women's empowerment by strengthening our health systems, entrenching women's reproductive rights and the care and rights of children.
Our starting point at this conference should, therefore, be: What can we do together - governments, communities, civil society, and the private sector to ensure that women have choices, have universal access to family planning services and are educated about when t hey have children, the spacing of their children and the choice on the number of children they have? How do we ensure that expectant mothers have the necessary nutritional and health needs to be able to carry and deliver healthy and nutritionally balanced babies?
The second issue of focus should be how we can facilitate safe delivery by the expectant mothers. Far too many women in Africa needlessly die in the process of child birth.
The causes for this include lack of access to proper prenatal care during pregnancy and to health facilities during child birth; inadequate trained or too few medical staff such as birth attendants, midwives, nurses and doctors; lack of essential and life-saving drugs and life support equipment in health facilities; and lack of information in basic life-saving techniques among traditional birth attendants, to name just a few.
The third area of concern for this conference should be the provision of care for the mother and child, especially in the immediate post-delivery period. This is a period of extreme fragility and danger for many new mothers and babies and many lives are lost due to birth and post-birth complications.
Fourthly, the conference should address issues related to sustaining the life of the newborn and its health care, encouraging breast feeding, general nutritional needs, during the child's critical development stage from birth up to the age of five years.
Besides the in-hospital medical care before and after birth, including post-natal visits, it is important to address the challenges posed by the home environment to the life, health and well-being of both mother and child. This includes access to safe drinking water and sanitation; vaccinations against various childhood diseases, malaria and HIV prevention and treatment, among others.
Finally, since teenage mothers are disproportionally represented when it comes to maternal and infant mortality, we have to pay special attention to empowerment of girls and women, ensure that girls remain in school until completion, discourage early pregnancy and outlaw child marriages.
Research increasingly shows that girls' education is not only important for their own empowerment, but that it also contributes to reductions in infant and maternal mortality and improves the lives of women, children, families and communities.
Nothing I have said is new. Indeed, this conference is not expected to make any new findings from either the policy or knowledge perspectives. We are here to share best practice, information and plans for implementation.
You will recall, in this regard, that in September 2006 African Ministers of Health and other stakeholders adopted the continental policy framework and the Maputo Plan of Action on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights to ensure universal access to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services on the continent and CARMMA as our concrete plan to realize these objectives.
This landmark decision paved the way for the Protocol of the African Charter on Human and People's Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. This Protocol urges our governments to guarantee comprehensive rights to women including the right to take part in the political process, to social and political equality with men, to control of their reproductive health.
The Protocol calls on our governments to ensure delivery of quality and affordable health services in order to promote safe motherhood, child survival and maternal, newborn and child health.
Furthermore, African Heads of State held a special session of the African Union in Kampala, Uganda, in July 2010 devoted to issues of maternal, newborn and child health.
In January this year, on the margins of the Assembly of Africa Union Heads of State and Government, African leaders held a working lunch of the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal, Newborn and Child Mortality in Africa (CARMMA).
These continental policy frameworks, as well as various national health policy frameworks by African countries, provide sufficient guidelines, information and recommendations on how to address the challenge of maternal, newborn and child mortality in Africa.
The issues we need to address at this conference, therefore, are those relating to implementation of existing continental and national policy frameworks and plans of action.
We need, in this respect, to create an effective coalition involving governments, communities, civil society, the private sector, cooperating partners and other international stakeholders that should galvanise and coordinate action on implementation, including resource mobilisation.
I also believe that the issue of maternal, newborn and child mortality is not merely a health issue. It is a multi-sectoral issue that can only be effectively addressed by a comprehensive approach both by national authorities and at continental level.
The conference will therefore involve several parallel sessions including a multi-sectoral session that will address those issues that may be outside the influence of the health sector but significantly impact on health outcomes.
I wish to reaffirm that solutions to our challenges, do not lie in the health sector alone. Advancement on health outcomes will depend on gender equality and status of women and children, education, access to clean water, sanitation and hygiene, food security and nutrition, capacity for production and distribution of essential health commodities.
It is imperative for the Commission of the African Union, governments and partners to collaborate more closely to develop, prioritize and implement policies that will improve the health of women and children in Africa.
As we celebrate 50 years of our existence as a continental organization it is unacceptable that women continue to die while giving life or that children die from conditions which science has secured the means to prevent and treat.
Oftentimes we are paralysed into inaction by the challenge of resource constraints. But we have also seen that when we choose to act together, when we believe that an issue poses an existential threat to our nations, we act resolutely and undeterred by resource constraints.
If we choose to make maternal, newborn and child mortality a priority; if we believe that maternal, newborn and child mortality poses an existential threat to all our nations and if we can muster the necessary political will, I have no doubt that we can find the necessary resources to eradicate avoidable maternal, newborn and child mortality in Africa.
To spend resources to preserve life, our most precious resource, is not expenditure, but an investment - an investment in our common humanity and our common survival!
I wish the Conference fruitful deliberations and expect that it will produce a clear outcome, in the form of an Action plan that commits all governments, civil society, the private sector, continental organisations to save more lives, as we head towards the Millennium Development Goals countdown.