By: Ernestine B. Greaves, one of the Women Deliver 100 Young Leaders
Globally, we now have the largest generation of youth in history: more than 1.2 billion young people are between 10 and 19 years old. We are the future. Yet our future is uncertain if our health systems and health services continue to fail this generation, and the next.
It’s an unfortunate truth that one woman, every minute, dies from complications due to pregnancy and childbirth around the world. This is also the leading cause of death for girls aged 15-19 in developing countries. Unplanned pregnancy rates continue to be high across the world, and of the 13% of maternal deaths worldwide due to unsafe abortions, almost half of those are aged under 19. The challenges of pregnancy and childbirth threaten young women’s lives every single day.
Now is the time to deliver for these women. As her Excellency President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf attends the Summit of the African Union, she must take action on maternal health and protect and promote the sexual and reproductive health and rights of young people.
Young people, particularly young women and adolescent girls, are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to affordable and safe health care services, comprehensive and evidence-based information and education, and a lack of autonomy in decision-making in their own lives. We also face especially serious barriers to accessing life-saving contraceptives and family planning services. Though, globally, we have seen a drop in total maternal deaths in the past ten years—progress we all should be proud of—still, the maternal mortality rate is 858.9 for every 100,000 live births in Liberia.
Fortunately, we can prevent these deaths if we invest in a few key safe and affordable health services. First, all women must have access to family planning so that they can determine whether and when they want to have children. They need access to skilled care before, during and after they give birth. Health providers must be trained in emergency obstetric care, and health centers and clinics must have surgical supplies for when complications occur. And all sexual and reproductive health services must be youth-friendly.
Providing these services is not only the right thing to do, it is the economically smart thing to do. Women and girls are a driving force in our economy, and when women are healthy, they play a crucial role in the development of our country. Young women, especially, have lifetimes of potential economic returns to give to their communities. Globally, maternal and infant deaths account for $15 billion in lost productivity, not to mention immeasurable grief for families and communities. That is $15 billion that could instead go towards strengthening economies, building roads and schools, and fostering a brighter future for our children.
As a young person, I attended the global conference on maternal health, Women Deliver, this past June in Washington, DC, the most important of its kind in the last ten years. Leaders, activists, and officials from around the world gathered together to call for increased commitments to women and girls. One such commitment came from Melinda Gates, who announced a commitment from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation of USD $1.5 billion in new grant money for maternal health. Women Deliver representatives called on governments, multilateral organizations, and donors to redouble their commitments and translate the talk about maternal health into action. We must harness the momentum from the conference and take action.
Though the goals of the conference are global, the issue is local. It is about our mothers, our sisters, our wives, and our daughters. We all have a role to play: men as much as women; business as much as non-governmental organizations and the government; the young as much as the old. We—our president, our leaders, and ourselves—must all be part of this movement. No one can do it alone.
Now is the time to recognize the critical roles women and girls play in our country’s future, roles they can fulfill if—and only if—they can lead healthy lives. The benefits can last a lifetime and make a lifetime last. We know how to save the lives of women and girls in our country. Now is the time to do it.