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Yes We Can, And This Is Why We Do It Every Day

By: Karen Beattie, Director of Fistula Care and Associate Vice President of Strategy and Impact, EngenderHealth; Originally posted on EngenderHealth

Reflections from Karen Beattie, a lifelong global women’s health advocate on the closing ceremony of the Global Maternal Health Conference, 2013

It was the end of three days of meetings, and I seriously considered skipping out on the closing plenary session. But – I knew Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla would be speaking and I have learned that one should never miss an opportunity to hear his thoughts. For those uninitiated, Dr. Fathalla is a professor at Assiut University in Egypt, a former head of the reproductive health division at WHO, and the father of the Safe Motherhood initiative. He was also a member of EngenderHealth’s Board of Directors for a long period of time.

The Global Maternal Health Conference took place at the Arusha International Conference Center in Arusha, Northern Tanzania.  The Center was for many years the home of the international tribunal that judged the actions of those involved in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.  Arusha is also close to the Rift Valley and Olduvai Gorge, for the longest time considered the cradle of humankind, although a spot in South Africa now holds the “cradle of humankind” title.  At Laetoli, nearby to Olduvai Gorge, footprints of an early human ancestor were preserved in volcanic ash dating from 3.6 million years ago and were discovered in the 1970s.  That brings me to Dr. Fathalla’s speech, entitled “A Message to the Lady of Laetoli.”  Dr. Fathalla noted that one of the sets of footprints was deemed to be that of a lady, and because of the way the print was indented into the ash, it was widely held that she was carrying an infant on her left hip.  He also noted that this individual or one of her sisters was our collective “mitochondrial mother.”

Dr. Fathalla’s message to the Lady of Laetoli:

  • We thank and we appreciate
  • We regret and we apologize
  • We promise, and yes, we can

We thank and we appreciate because we know the sacrifices and risks of women through the ages are the reasons we are here today.  We know that maternal mortality was extremely high until recently.  Where nothing is done to avert maternal mortality, “natural” mortality is around 1,000 to 1,500 per 100,000 live births.  Dr. Fathalla cited a PRB 2011 paper that estimated the number of humans ever born was 107 billion and the population in mid-2011 was just under 7 billion. A stunning fact Dr. Fathalla gave is that more women have given up their lives in childbirth, for the survival of our species, than men have ever died in battle. So our very existence is the gift and sacrifice of women.

We regret and we apologize and we cannot expect forgiveness.  Women had to give up their lives when we did not have the means to prevent their deaths in pregnancy and childbirth.  And yet, when we do have the means, we still leave them to die.  We should plead guilty when we see that 800 women still die every day.  An inconvenient truth is that they die because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives can be saved.

We promise we will eradicate maternal mortality, and yes, we can, for several reasons:

  • The work presented by participants at the GMHC Conference 2013 is evidence of the immense body of knowledge and commitment shared across disciplines and throughout all areas of the world.  He was gratified and comforted by the “new blood” to carry on this work.  He showed a picture of Malala, the young girl recently shot down for wanting an education and advocating for education on behalf of her peers.  He was gratified that she is recovering and moved by the statements of her classmates that they would not be stopped from getting an education – and “they will win.”
  • He noted the progress the world has made.  Between 1990 and 2010, maternal deaths had dropped by 50%, but there still remains work to be done.
  • The message from the representatives of the host country, Tanzania, that maternal health is a national priority and that it had experienced a 25% drop in maternal mortality between 2005 and 2010.
  • The power of women, making their voices heard.

He repeated his message to the Lady of Laetoli:

  • We thank and we appreciate
  • We regret and we apologize
  • We promise, and yes, we can

These written words can do no justice to the presence, dignity and inspiration of this gentle man, a hero who, as a colleague and friend remarked, through his life has saved countless lives.  Another colleague, who sat on my other side during the ceremony, said never in his life had he witnessed such a moving and motivating closing statement.  Throughout the speech you could not hear a pin drop.  Everyone was riveted.  At the end of his speech, he received a long and well deserved standing ovation.  Most of us admitted to having tears in our eyes, hard not to because most of us seemed not to have a tissue!  After the formal closing by the Minister of Health of Zanzibar, many of the participants, especially the younger ones (the “new blood”) rushed to where Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla was to congratulate him, to shake his hand, and to have their photograph taken with him.  We all agreed that this was a reminder of why we get up every day to do the work we do.

 

Flickr photograph via Gates Foundation.

Entry Comments

  1. I am inspired by Dr. Fathalia’s words. Being part of a small team who planted the fertile seed of knowledge and understanding of perinatal emergencies to a small group of women, using the ACNM Home Based Live Saving Skills - I want to remind everyone that there is power in small grassroots efforts and any of us can initiate far reaching change.  Look up our website and see what 4 village women started with the seed that we planted.  I would like to see this program migrate to villages all over the world.  Low Tech, Hi Gain - it is a project that can yield high outcome with a small budget and training…

    • Mar 15
    • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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    • May 15
    • .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

    i must say doctors you really doing a good work very nice i really like your work keep working like this i really love that great.

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