The landmark Women Deliver
conference, which concluded last week, reinvigorated the global health community’s commitment to improve reproductive health at both the grassroots and global levels. Providing a major boost was the Gates Foundation’s announcement
that it will commit an additional $1.5 billion over the next five years to support maternal and child health, family planning, and nutrition programs in developing countries.
“We haven’t tried hard enough,” said Gates Foundation co-founder Melinda Gates. “Most maternal and newborn deaths can be prevented with existing, low-cost solutions.” Examples of these efficient and effective solutions were presented at the three-day conference’s dozens of panels on a wide range of issues, including climate change, contraceptive commodities, fistula, gender inequities, adolescent family planning, communications and technology, and much more.
Empowering Young Girls to Access Family Planning
“When we speak about adolescents we typically think of prevention. However, we must also think about providing access to safe abortions and supporting young women who want to be mothers and empower young women to make choices,” said Katie Chau, a consultant at International Planned Parenthood Federation.
In Nigeria, “there is not much attention on adolescent sexual and reproductive health, even though a majority of rapes occur before the age of 13, and the rate of teenage pregnancy and abortions is high,” said Bene Madunagu, chair of the Girls’ Power Initiative (GPI) in Nigeria. GPI teaches girls about their rights to make decisions, including those regarding sex and reproductive health, as well as improving their critical thinking skills, self-esteem, and body image. “Girls develop critical consciousness and question discriminatory practices, while also learning about the legal instruments to take up their concerns,” he said.
Sadaf Nasim of Rahnuma Family Planning said child marriages are common in his country, Pakistan. “Marriage is an easy solution for poor families. Once a girl is married she is no longer the responsibility of the family,” he explained.
While laws in Pakistan and other parts of the developing world condemn child marriage, the prevalence of child marriage remains high: 49 percent of girls are married by age 18 in South Asia, and 44 percent in West and Central Africa. Nasim said birth registration at the local and national levels should be improved to prevent parents from manipulating their daughter’s age.
In Kyrgyzstan, “community-based efforts worked to galvanize media attention and disseminate information to demonstrate the need for improved adolescent family planning,” said Tatiana Popovitskaya, a project coordinator with Reproductive Health Alliance of Kyrgyzstan. Such community-based approaches use grassroots education to mobilize community leaders, which is a critical step in overcoming child marriage and other harmful traditions.
Cell Phones and Maternal Health
“There is a lot of information being collected, but it is not necessarily going where it needs to because of fragmentation,” said Alison Bloch, program director at mHealth Alliance. In developing countries, the people most in need are often the most isolated, but mobile technology is emerging as a way to bridge the gaps.
According to a recent report by mHealth Alliance, 64 percent of mobile phone users live in developing countries and more than half of people living in remote areas will have mobile phones by 2012. The potential for improving global health with cell phones and PDAs is significant, and can address a wide range of health issues, such as human resource shortages and information sharing problems between clinics and hospitals.
“Mobile technology provides benefits to individuals, institutions, caregivers, and the community. It reduces travel time and costs for the individual, improves efficiency of health service delivery, and streamlines information to health workers to reduce maternal mortality,” said Elaine Weidman, vice president of sustainability and corporate responsibility at Ericsson.
“Mobile technology is the most rapidly adopted technology in history and represents an existing opportunity to reach the un-reached,” said Fabiano Teixeira da Cruz, a program manager for the Inter-American Development Bank, speaking of the benefits of using mobile technology to train field-based healthcare workers in Latin America.
While mobile phones are indeed reaching parts of the world not currently equipped with quality healthcare, the lack of systematic coordination and infrastructure at the district and regional levels must also be addressed, as highlighted during a recent Wilson Center event, Improving Transportation and Referral for Maternal Health.
Read about our first impressions of Women Deliver 2010 here.
Calyn Ostrowski is program associate with the Wilson Center’s Global Health Initiative
Photo credit: Woman and child in South African AIDS clinic, courtesy Flickr user tcd123usa.