Parliamentarians from all over the world showed their support for maternal, newborn and child health at a joint UNICEF-IPU panel today. Some 200 MPs gathered in Cape Town for the 118th Assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) discussed the status of maternal and child health and what parliamentarians can do specifically to champion their cause and mobilize more support in their own countries.
“Care for mothers, newborns and children is at the heart of human progress and a country's well-being,” said Dr. Gertrude Mongella, President of the Pan-African Parliament and key note speaker. “We are 44,098 parliamentarians globally. Can't we do something individually and collectively that can change the lives of mothers and children? We have the power. We have the voice. Do we have the courage?”
Recent years have seen some progress in child and maternal health – particularly in areas of disease prevention. Dr. Mongella cited an example in her own country – Tanzania – where immunization coverage rates have jumped from 40 to 80 per cent in the past two years.
Such success stories are proof that the knowledge and resources exist to combat child and maternal mortality, but political commitment needs to be strong if the world is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals on child and maternal health (MDGs 4 and 5). “We are failing MDGs 4 and 5,” said Dr. Mongella. “Is this not an issue on which parliaments should be held to account?”
Progress towards MDGs 4 and 5 and the status of child and maternal health was the specific focus of Countdown to 2015, a collaborative report released at the IPU Âssembly today focusing on the health status of mothers and children in 68 countries, which account for 97 per cent of all child and maternal deaths. The report in particular cites the need to strengthen national health systems and provide a continuum of care for mothers, newborns and children that can provide basic, cost-effective health services at all of the critical stages of life.
“What you can do as parliamentarians is create a supportive environment for maternal, newborn and child survival,” said Peter Salama, UNICEF Chief of Health, adding that parliaments can play an active role in demanding services for their communities.
“MPs need to get involved when it comes to achieving MDGs 4 and 5,” said IPU Secretary General Anders Johnsson at the launch of the Countdown report, citing in particular representatives of the 68 priority countries where urgent action is needed to save the lives of women and children. By launching the Countdown report here at the IPU Assembly, he added, “we expect to build awareness on their behalf and obtain a commitment to go back to their countries to see what they can do to get things right.”
The theme of this year's IPU Assembly is Pushing back the frontiers of poverty – an issue with far-reaching consequences that go beyond the victim's day-to-day struggle for survival.
“Poverty starts with young girls and women,” said Philip O'Brien, Chief of the UNICEF delegation, referring to the importance of improving the status of women and girls – their rights, their education and their health.
Earlier in the week, parliamentarians were able to see first-hand some of the challenges women face during a visit to a UNICEF-supported project assisting young HIV-positive mothers. Mothers 2 Mothers is a community-based project that aims to prevent transmission of the virus from mother to child, keep young HIV-positive mothers and their children healthy, and help them cope with the stigma and fear associated with HIV and AIDS.
Groups of MPs also visited two other projects – a high school located in a crime-ridden neighborhood that aims to create a safe learning environment for its students, and community based project to help children orphaned by HIV and AIDS.
The field visits were organized by the IPU and UNICEF – a long-term partnership that combines the advantages of each global organization.
“Eighteen years ago the IPU and UNICEF partnership was significant in making the Convention on the Rights of the Child the most rapidly ratified international convention in history,” said Philip O'Brien. “Since then, the power of the parliamentary lobby has been instrumental in ensuring national commitment to international standards.”
Child and maternal health - and its link to combating poverty - has received commendable attention throughout the week at IPU, which opened with an address by South African President Mbeki welcoming the 1,200 participants from some 140 countries.
“Investing in the health of women and children is not only an investment in human rights, but a sound economic decision,” said Dr. Mongella.