Protecting the health of mothers when they need it most

EU Commissioner for Development Andris Piebalgs visits the maternity ward of the Lodwar District Hospital in Kenya. The European Union funds up to 11 projects that are focused on maternal and child health. Photo by: European Union

During my visits to our partner countries as European Union development commissioner, I have met many women and mothers who show extraordinary strength and resilience every single day of their lives — earning a living for the family, making sure there is food on the table in the evening, protecting and raising their kids, sometimes in times of violent conflict or crisis.

Women play a crucial role in the development of our societies. It is even more frustrating then that we still have not managed to protect the health of mothers across the world at the time when they need it most.

Improving maternal health is among the most challenging of the Millennium Development Goals and overall progress on reducing maternal mortality is slow. Globally, the maternal mortality ratio dropped by 45 percent between 1990 and 2013, from 380 to 210 deaths per 100,000 live births, but this still means that in 2013 almost 300,000 women died from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth.

A year ahead of the 2015 deadline for the MDGs, we still have a lot of work to do. With its 1 billion euro ($1.34 billion) MDG Initiative, the European Union has been targeting those goals which have been lagging behind. Up to 11 of its projects are focusing on maternal and child health — such as in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where we finance more affordable and better quality services for almost one million mothers and children under five, supplying 250 health centers with medicines, equipment and information.

We all need to agree on prioritizing maternal health

Overall, the EU’s main focus in health is to support our partner countries in building systems that are effective, inclusive and sustainable, to make sure they can provide quality basic health services to their population.

Concretely, this means helping national authorities that their health sector has the funding it needs and is well-run, that there are enough qualified health workers, that technologies and medical products — including for family planning — are available.

Of course, to achieve this, partner governments need to be committed and prioritize health — and specifically women's health. Funding maternal as well as sexual and reproductive healthcare services are a good investment, and will benefit not only the women and their families but ultimately the whole country.

When it comes to protecting the health of mothers there is no need to invent fancy or expensive medicines or new technologies. We can prevent most maternal deaths and improve the health and survival of newborn babies with well-known essential interventions, ranging from improved family planning and better coverage of basic medical care during and after the pregnancy to the presence of a trained midwife when a child is born, with overall better access to maternal, newborn and emergency obstetric care.

Additional efforts are also needed to reach those who find it most difficult to get access to reproductive health care, especially vulnerable population groups such as poor women and adolescent girls. And let’s not forget that access to health care is a major factor for the health of women of childbearing age, but not the only one: some 222 million women have no control over family planning choices due to social and economic barriers. The EU works with governments in many countries to improve the position of women in society through better education for girls or programs that empower women, such as microcredit schemes. Finally, more needs to be done to prevent early marriages and adolescent pregnancy, as well as to fight harmful practices such as female cutting.

While many challenges remain, it is important to remind ourselves that we have already made a lot of progress.

Between 2008 and 2012 more than 45 percent of EU aid to the health sector in partner countries went into maternal, newborn and child health, amounting to 1.5 billion euros ($2.05 billion). We have achieved a number of impressive results with this — since 2004, almost 17 million consultations on reproductive health have been carried out with EU support, and 7.5 million births were attended by skilled health personnel.

In addition, the EU contributes to global initiatives that improve maternal health, such as the U.N. Population Fund’s Global Program on Reproductive Health Commodity Security, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria and the GAVI Alliance.

We also fund civil society organizations, particularly where access to basic health services needs to be improved for marginalized populations that are hard to reach. One impressive example can be found in in Afghanistan, where NGOs were contracted to support the government in the management and delivery of basic health services, which reached a total population of over 5.2 million. As a result, more than 100,000 child births were assisted by health professionals in 2012.

Continuing the fight for reduced maternal mortality

Looking ahead, the European Commission will continue to focus on strengthening national health systems in 15 partner countries where health has been selected as a focal sector for EU development cooperation in 2014-2020.

Overall, around 20 percent of our funding will be channelled to human development, of which around one-third will go to health through funding of country programs and support to regional and global initiatives. A key objective will be to provide universal health care coverage, while making sure that vulnerable population groups have social protection so that those who need services can also afford them.

Moreover, we currently find ourselves at a critical milestone in preparing a post-2015 agenda which will reinforce the international community’s commitment to poverty eradication and sustainable development.

The U.N. Open Working Group on Sustainable Development Goals recently agreed on a proposal of SDGs for the next U.N. General Assembly, including a goal on health. Its first specific target is to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio, and another target aims to end preventable deaths of newborn and under-five children. Other important targets under this proposed goal are ensuring UHC, including universal access to sexual and reproductive health care services. Since the different goals are closely interlinked, there are other targets that can contribute, such as those on ending hunger and malnutrition and ensuring access to food, safe drinking water and sanitation.

Soon, the U.N. process will enter into intergovernmental negotiations. The EU and its member states are ready to continue to play a constructive and influential role in this, to make sure that we adopt an ambitious post-2015 development agenda in September 2015, negotiated in close dialogue with our international partners. Maternal health, which is part of the unfinished business of the MDGs, has an important place in this future agenda.

Making sure that everybody can live in health will require equitable, universal and quality health services that people can afford.

Aug. 18, 2014, marks the 500-day milestone until the target date to achieve the Millennium Development Goals. Join Devex, in partnership with the United Nations Foundation, to raise awareness of the progress made through the MDGs and to rally to continue the momentum. Check out our Storify page and tweet us using #MDGmomentum.

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About the author

  • Andris Piebalgs

    Andris Piebalgs is EU commissioner for development since 2010. A member of the Lead Group of the Scaling-Up Nutrition Movement, the U.N. High-Level Group on Sustainable Energy for All and the U.N. High-Level Panel on Post-2015, he was previously commissioner for energy and occupied several ministerial portfolios in Latvia.