It doesn’t matter if you’re a diplomat, a student, a researcher, a teacher or a social worker, says Theresa Shaver, President and Exectuvie Director of White Ribbon Alliance, each person can play a role in improving maternal health for women globally. The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood (WRA) brings together 20,000 member organizations in 155 countries who are all fighting for one cause – improving maternal health for women globally. Esha Chhabra recently spoke with Shaver about WRA’s efforts to fight maternal health mortality around the world. This conversation has been condensed for brevity.
Esha Chhabra: What compelled you to make this [maternal health] your life’s purpose?
EC: Women’s issues are no longer a soft issue. Helping women has been equated with decreasing conflict in communities and addressing serious development needs. What do you make of this correlation?
Yes, absolutely. I’m so glad to see women like Hillary Clinton take this issue seriously and illustrate that. By helping women, we’ll be helping economically as well in the community. When women make an income, they’re likely to invest 90% back into their family. Men, however, do only about 30 -40%. Each year, $15. 5 billion potential productivity is lost when mothers and children die in childbirth. That’s important to realize.
And then you’ve got the medical costs and the burdens that come with having health complications. So, that has an effect economically as well at home and in the local community. That burden can breed a cycle of poverty. Maternal health issues have long-term serious implications that go beyond just health.
EC: How do we build solutions for maternal health? Are there any innovative models that you’ve seen that you feel can help fight maternal health woes?
It’s about coordination. You need a supply chain that provides the medical needs. You need the community element that lets them know what their rights are. You need to address the cultural barriers in health facilities. You need a MFI organization to help with economically at the family level. We need a more holistic approach that’s coordinated.
When I used to work in Cambodia, there was a beautiful, modern health facility but it was known as a “ghost clinic” – they considered that you died there and your spirits were there. So, there was no connection with the community and therefore, it didn’t work. You need to have connection with the community and work through such cultural hurdles.
EC: Where have you seen success? Have any countries done it right, according to you?
Increasing the number of midwives is a big part of the solution. We’ve been trying to address this gap of 3.5 million health workers that’s so desperately needed. We’ve seen that with a 10% increase in skilled health workers, that results in a 5% reduction in maternal deaths. This was done in Malaysia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Each country has halved its maternal mortality rate ratio. It was the skilled health workers that helped turn it around.
Also, we are responsible in North America and Europe for this brain drain of medical health workers. While they’re trained locally, they’re deployed immediately; so it’s hard to retain them in these rural areas that are really tough to work in.
EC: What’s surprised you in your work with WRA on maternal health?
What most people don’t realize is that we in the US rank 50th in developed countries. Our maternal mortality ratio has gone up, not down. And it’s around some of the same issues that are plaguing other countries – lack of political attention, cultural issues, and quality of care. It’s not just an issue in developing countries. It’s happening here as well.
EC: What’s your wish list for the coming year?
We want to protect the aid commitments that have been allocated to maternal health and make sure that they’re spent on programs that are most life-saving. We got a pledge of $80 billion, which was great. But pledges are one thing and the actual accountability of that is another thing. So, we want to safeguard that and make sure it happens. We want to see more alliances, we want to keep growing. We want these stories to be highlighted locally and globally.
EC: Are these programs in health sustainable and is it possible to include social businesses that address public health as well?
Yes, I think we need both. There will always be those who can’t afford the medical services. And if they lose their health, they’ll have to sell their crop, their land, their animals to pay for the bills. So, we have to keep those people in mind when creating social enterprises in health. You have to have a social safety net and in some countries, that’s really critical because they’re not at a stage yet where people can pay even the most basic fees in facilities.
EC: What’s a stat that most people may not know about maternal health?
According to WHO, pregnancy and childbirth are among the leading causes of death and disability for girls in developing countries. A girl in Chad is more likely to die in childbirth than she is to attend secondary school.