Reproductive rights: A matter of life and death

Wednesday, 24 April 2013 12:30 GMT

A woman with her child strapped onto her back attends a support group for people with HIV and their families at the headquarters of the Centre Esperance Loyola (CEL - Loyola Hope Centre), a West African Jesuit organisation, in Agoe-Nyive, a suburb of Lome, in Togo, April 16, 2013. REUTERS/Darrin Zammit Lupi

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Making sure that every woman can give birth safely is not just a health matter

Looking back along two centuries of my family's ancestral maternal lines, I realise that the lives of my Scottish foremothers were tragically defined and restricted by the dark shadow of poverty.
Back then, women had no real choices about how many babies they conceived and delivered, or how frequently. But that reality continues to exist today for 222 million women worldwide.

Every day 800 women and girls lose their lives in childbirth or during pregnancy. To feel the true weight of what this means, we have only to look back to past generations of our own families, or draw on the pain each of us feels at the loss of someone we love.

Next month, UK Prime Minister David Cameron, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and their fellow members of a UN task force will present a report to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon  that could mean life or death for thousands of women in the developing world. 

We believe the task force and the Secretary General will do the right thing, and urge world leaders to commit sufficient resources and budgets to give women the ability to choose when they have children, and how many they will have. But that's not where it should end.

The report alone will not ensure that the rights of women are protected as leaders work to shape the development objectives that will replace the Millennium Development Goals in 2015.


My great great grandmothers might possibly have envied Malita Luciano, a 28-year-old who gave birth to her fourth child at a birthing clinic in Mbole, Malawi, in January.  Malita chose to space out the births of her children—she’s had one every two or three years – with the aid of birth control shots. 
Malita, who walked an hour from her village to the clinic where she gave birth, is one of the lucky ones. Although the country has made progress, every year 3,000 women in Malawi die in childbirth or as a result of pregnancy.

The World Health Organisation says worldwide the number is almost 300,000, with 99 percent of them in poor countries. They die because they have too many children, or because they start too young, or they don’t get the care they need when complications arise. And in Malawi, as in dozens of other countries, thousands of women continue to lack the tools they want to determine how many children to have and when.

Giving women this power is not just a matter of slowing down the nation’s burgeoning population. It can literally be a matter of life and death. 

Malawi’s new president says she remembers this every time she visits a local hospital.

“It’s the young ones who are dying,” says President Joyce Banda, who is a fellow member of the Aspen Institute’s Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health. “Their bodies are not developed enough to bear babies. 

It’s easy to feel powerless over the plight of women in the world’s poorest nations, but the more I’ve learned about my predecessors, the more I realize that this remains EVERY WOMAN'S issue EVERYWHERE.  

My great great-great grandmother had a child out of wedlock with a powerful solicitor who raised his own (legitimate) wealthy family a few yards around the corner from where his daughter and grandchildren were living in abject poverty.

Five generations down the line, I can only express profound gratitude for the modern tools we have in hand to empower us and help us make long-term life-influencing choices.

So why should we not give this same power to all women, so we can all have a better quality of life, and create a more sustainable future?

As a woman, and a mother, I have found my own sense of empathy has deepened throughout all the difficult challenges I've experienced in my life. Most people will be exposed at some point in their lives to an overwhelming paralysis brought on by fear and despair. This is a common leveling ground, where we come to realise that we are all "merely human" after all. Once we have experienced personal suffering, it becomes clear that we wouldn't want anyone else to have to go through it.

Envisage a young girl being forced into marriage and becoming pregnant far too young. As a result of the baby's delivery, the mother’s genital area is torn apart, and she will be left completely incontinent, to become a social outcast in her own community. 

Now…. Multiply that one young woman by thousands, living in remote villages and rural areas all over the developing world, and you might get a sense of the scale of this barbaric situation.

In my view, this is where the "feminism" of the 21st Century needs to find its groove. There's so much to be done to ensure the rights of women and girls. Instead, we diss the "F" word, or discuss the finer points of what it means. 

Worldwide, there are 222 million women who do not have the means to plan their families: women who would like to delay or stop childbearing, but who lack access to any method of contraception.

We can turn empathy into action, and demand that our leaders support the efforts of Malawi and other nations to ensure that programmes of sexual and reproductive health don’t disappear. 

On my recent trip to Malawi with the Aspen Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, I learned of President Joyce Banda’s plan for saving women’s lives in her country. My colleagues and I promised to help. But we cannot do it alone. 

We have succeeded in our own families, in our own countries. Let’s make it happen everywhere.