* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Kenyan leaders and foreign agencies are determined to reduce the large number of women dying in childbirth
“Childbirth should be a joyous moment for families and communities,” Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta said at a meeting with religious leaders on March 4. “It is therefore a matter of great concern to my government that in this country, as many as 21 women die every day while giving birth,” he added.
As we commemorate International Women’s Day, it is crucial to take stock of progress and outstanding challenges that confront women and girls and rededicate ourselves to making a difference in their lives.
The theme of 2015 International Women’s Day, ‘Make It Happen’, resonates strongly in Kenya where unusually high levels of maternal deaths have given Kenya the dubious distinction of being one of the most dangerous countries in which to give birth. Over 6,000 Kenyan women die each year in childbirth.
What is killing our mothers, our wives, our sisters and our daughters? They are dying because they have too many children too close together, or they live too far from a health facility, or because the health facilities are ill-equipped to handle complications during delivery.
In other cases, it is because harmful traditional practices, such as Female Genital Mutilation and child marriage, complicate labour and delivery or because the women lack the knowledge and resources to take care of themselves during pregnancy.
But the crisis has unleashed a groundswell of action from a cross-section of actors which is already beginning to deliver results. The resolve to change the situation has never been stronger.
Free maternity services bring hope
The number of women delivering at health facilities is steadily increasing, supported by a fast-expanding network of partners, since the government introduced free maternity services in 2013. In August, governors from the 15 counties where 98 percent of Kenya’s maternal deaths occur signed a communiqué to address the problem. This was followed by a commitment by parliamentarians from these counties in November to support the communiqué.
This past week, religious leaders committed to lend their moral authority, social and religious influence and resources to the cause. Today, some 20,000 people are expected to join the First Lady of Kenya in a half marathon which she set up last year to support her clarion call that “no woman should die giving life”.
We are witnessing an unprecedented unity of purpose around this issue. The United Nations, the World Bank, the development agencies of the United States, Britain, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Japan and others, as well as local and international civil society groups, such as Kenya Red Cross, have come together to advance maternal, child and adolescent health.
Private sector organisations, such as Kenya’s largest mobile phone company Safaricom and technology company Philips, have also begun programmes that are making a difference.
Progress towards achieving MDGs
The curtain will fall on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in just nine months and it will be time for nations to table their report cards. Kenya has done quite well on many of the MDGs. But on MDG 5 – to reduce the number of maternal deaths by three quarters – it will be lagging.
Globally, about 200 women die per 100,000 live births. In Kenya, the Maternal Mortality Rate (MMR) is 488 deaths per 100,000 live births. For remote northern counties, such as Mandera and Wajir, it is a staggering 3,795 and 1,683 respectively, higher than wartime Afghanistan or Somalia.
We believe that with our collective efforts, Kenya will cross the line. The foundations have been laid.
It will be difficult but we can all learn from Kenyan athlete Hyvon Ngetich in February’s Austin Marathon. Metres from the finish line, her feet could not carry her any more. Rather than lie down, she bravely crawled over the line, coming second in the race. “In running, you have to keep going," she said later.
We have to keep going. We have to advance the rights of every woman and girl in Kenya. Educated and healthy women and girls will be the wind beneath the wings of our nation as it takes off politically, socially and economically.
Happy International Women’s Day!
Ruth Kagia is a Senior Adviser in the Office of the President of Kenya. Follow her on twitter: @ruthkagia. Siddharth Chatterjee is the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Representative to Kenya. Follow him on twitter: @sidchat1