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09.25.09

The Fight for Women's Lives

Wendi Murdoch, Queen Rania Al Abdullah, and Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi spoke out this week against one of the worst problems in the developing world: the number of women who die in childbirth.

With the eyes of the world on New York for the 64th General Assembly of the United Nations, we welcomed more than 300 of the world's most influential women for dinner Wednesday night. The topic of conversation was an issue that needs to be at the top of every world leader's agenda—maternal mortality.

Click Image Below to View Gallery of the Ultimate Power Women's Dinner

Each year, more than a half million women lose their lives from complications arising before, during, or after childbirth. Almost all of these deaths occur in the developing world, and almost all of them are preventable.

Behind these statistics are the stories of promising lives cut short and of the motherless children left behind. For the women who joined us Wednesday night and for all others around the globe, maternal mortality is not just an abstract issue—it’s a personal one. And in the stories that follow, we would like to share our personal perspectives.

Her Majesty Queen Rania Al Abdullah

Last year, 60 million women around the world gave birth without professional care.

More than half a million of them died.

Think, for a moment, about that number. One woman. Every minute. Every day.

They are women like Sharifa, just 23, from Afghanistan, whose delivery was obstructed, who screamed in pain as her relatives tied her to a ladder, and carried her for hours to a clinic—only to be told to go to hospital 200 kilometers away. Her husband had to rent a car and drive along roads so dirty and pitted that she choked on dust and fainted. When she was resuscitated, she was told that her baby was dead, and she wouldn't have any more children.

But at least Sharifa is still alive.

Aishat, from Nigeria, was not so lucky. She had her first child at just 16. By 33, she was pregnant for the ninth time, in a mission to deliver a prized male child. Following 36 hours of labor, she bled to death, at home.

It doesn't have to be this way. Women don't have to keep dying like this. And little girls don't have to grow up wondering if their lives will end when they give birth.

The hard work of making this a reality doesn't start in contractions, or even conception, it starts in the classroom. If we can get girls into quality schools, they can become part of the solution.

The child of a literate mother is 50 percent more likely to survive past the age of 5, and when girls finish quality secondary and higher education, 84 percent of them will give birth with skilled medical help, more than twice the rate of mothers with no formal education.

When you educate a girl, you kick-start a cycle of success.

It makes economic sense. It makes social sense. It makes moral sense. But, it seems, it's not common sense yet.

Wendi Murdoch

I grew up knowing my mother had killed her mother. A tragedy: yes, but in those days in Xuzhou, China, dying in childbirth was just a fact of life. And, sadly, it still is in many parts of the world. Today, one woman dies every minute during pregnancy or childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. More than a million children—like my mom—are left motherless each year. It's a travesty when simple, cheap interventions could have an immediate impact on maternal mortality.

Access to emergency medical services, health education, family planning and contraception could prevent 80 percent of maternal deaths for less than $1.50 per woman in the 75 countries where 95 percent of maternal deaths occur. Think about it: we could save a woman's life for less than the price of a subway ride. So, why aren't we doing it?

I have two daughters who I pray will grow up to have beautiful children of their own and never experience the fear I associated with pregnancy. But there are millions of women around the world who continue to be gripped by that terror every day. It's time to put an end to it. Shame on all of us if we don't.

Indra Nooyi

Where I was born in India, pregnant women receive months of pampering from their mothers and other family members. Because my mother received this care during her pregnancy with me, she was there to give me the same treatment when I gave birth to my two children in the United States.

I often think of the women who are not as fortunate—those who must give birth without a trained medical worker, a doting mother, or a loving family member at their side. Who comes to their aid?

For all too many women around the globe, the answer is no one. They are left to face childbirth all alone not knowing whether they will survive. This is a fate that no woman should ever have to face.

As women, we share a special passion for this issue. But it should not be our issue alone. We need to make men our partners in progress. We need to teach all people to cherish the women in their lives. And we need to work together with governments and organizations to build a future where no woman needlessly dies while bringing new life into this world.

We have the resources and knowledge to achieve this vision. Now is the time to use them.