By Joanne Omang
WASHINGTON, June 7—It was the personal stories that resonated most.
The Women Deliver 2010 conference opened today with certified heavy hitters sending the right messages out to the world about women’s health needs: “If we act now, and act together, we can deliver for women,” said UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon about his global agencies. “You can count on us.”
Good to hear, yes. But the 3,000 attendees really caught their collective breath when Ban recalled his own birth in a home in rural Korea, and about wondering as a child why pregnant women would gaze at their shoes before going into the delivery room. It’s because they are wondering if they will ever step into those shoes again, his mother told him.
Motherhood then was a life-threatening experience, and it still is in too much of the world today, Ban said. So began his life’s work, “a journey to help every woman step back into her shoes again after giving birth.”
Thoraya Obaid, executive director of UNFPA, the UN Population Fund, sounded a major conference theme in calling for integrated health services across a woman’s lifespan as the way to scale up smaller successful programs. But she riveted the audience at the opening plenary when she recalled that her father, a devout Moslem in conservative Saudi Arabia, “interpreted Islam so as to empower me,” to send her to school and make her independent. “I want every woman to have the opportunities I have had,” she said.
Ngozi Okonko-Iweala, a managing director of the World Bank, described the bank’s success with “results-based financing” of $10 billion for 101 projects in reproductive health care. But her point about the need to make those services accessible was truly made when she recalled that when she went into labor in her first pregnancy, the doctor discovered that the child’s umbilical cord was twisted around its neck. “You must go into the operating room right now,” she was told. If that care had not been available, “we would not have made it,” she said.
Women Deliver President Jill Sheffield called Dr. Fred Sai “the godfather of the women’s health movement” for his 50-plus years of dedication. As co-chair of the conference, he lamented only that he had not yet succeeded even in his own country of Ghana.
Finally, singer-activist Yvonne Chakachaka of South Africa drew appreciative laughter when she said women who receive information, education and communication become “well-organized men, W-O-men,” so that the men in the audience were honorary women. Her voice softened: her father had died when she was 11 and she vowed to be the leader he had been for her.
Then she stood and sang it: “Now is the time! Let women rule!”
The audience stood up and cheered.