America’s Restored Funding to UNFPA Sends Strong Message to Women Worldwide


President Obama’s restoration of funding to UNFPA, the United Nations
Population Fund, sends a strong message to the world’s women that the new
president’s promise of change is more than just a political slogan. The impact
of the decision — to release $50 million to UNFPA for family planning, HIV
prevention and improving maternal health — will be felt in communities and
villages around the globe. While the funding is needed and much appreciated,
even more important is the shift in U.S. policy to support reproductive health
and women’s rights worldwide.

As the
head of UNFPA for the past eight years, I have traveled the world and can tell
you that the issues of women’s rights and reproductive health have in the past
been egregiously neglected by the international community.

I have
seen overcrowded maternity wards where women are desperately waiting for the
medical interventions that can save their lives. Most women had first gone to
local nurses or semi-skilled traditional birth attendants for care, then came
to the hospital when they developed complications.

Every day,
my colleagues get reports of women bleeding to death, dying from high blood
pressure, infections, complications from HIV and other childbirth injuries.

These
women become one of the 536,000 who die every year of pregnancy-related causes.
This corresponds to one woman dying each minute in childbirth — mostly in
Africa and Asia — making maternal mortality the largest health inequity in the
world.

Today a
woman in Niger faces a 1 in 7 chance of dying during childbirth compared to a 1
in 4800 risk for a woman in the United States.

It is the
accumulation of risk factors — including poverty, marginalization, gender
inequities, poor roads and infrastructure, the lack of water and sanitation
and, of course, insufficient health care systems — that explains this major
gap in maternal health. Eliminating unintended pregnancies would reduce
maternal mortality by 20 percent or more. Yet more than 200 million women lack
access to proper fertility treatments or birth control.

The women
who die are just the tip of the iceberg. More than 2 million women are living
with the fistulas — devastating childbirth injuries that are easily
preventable with proper medical care during delivery. They suffer through days
of painful, obstructed labor only to give birth to a dead baby and be left with
a damaged body that leaks urine and sometimes feces. If this is not horrible
enough, many are shunned by their husbands and families and left isolated and
ashamed. But, of course, the real shame belongs to a world that allows such
atrocious neglect to continue.

Fistulas
were eliminated in wealthy countries more than a century ago thanks to birth
control and advancements in child birth medicine, namely caeserian sections,
but it persists in poor nations with weak and crumbling health systems.

In
Ethiopia and Bangladesh, I had the opportunity to visit hospitals that offer
surgical services to women with fistulas and there are few sights more joyful
than seeing a woman’s hope and dignity restored with successful medical
treatment.

Good
leadership and equitable policies make a big difference for women, especially
when it comes to their reproductive health and rights. With the United States
joining more than 180 countries that support UNFPA, the world’s women have
reason to hope they will suffer such abject neglect going forward.

Cross-posted at The Huffington Post.

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