International Women's Day: The Overlooked and Underemphasized Role of Men in Maternal Health

This post is part of U.N. Women's #HeforShe campaign, launched in honor of International Women's Day, to highlight the voices of male leaders standing up for gender equality and women's health.

It was almost exactly a year ago that I sat in the waiting room of a Manhattan hospital anxiously anticipating the arrival of my grandson (my first grandchild), my mind racing with wonder. What will he look like? How will he sound? What will it be like to be a grandfather? Will I be a good one? What will it feel like when I hold him in my arms for the first time?

But then, taking a step back, I realized the assumption I was making. In my head, I thought in terms of "when," not "if." I had the good fortune of imagining the moment when my healthy daughter first presents her healthy newborn, letting my mind run wild with excitement about her road ahead as a mother: when she teaches him how to say "mommy," when she holds his hands for his first steps, when she takes him to his first day of school. But for too many people throughout the world, these milestones are not guaranteed.

Tragically, more than a quarter-million women die each year during pregnancy or childbirth. This means that every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a husband loses a wife, a brother loses a sister, a father loses a daughter. It means that existing children lose their mother and become more likely to leave school, suffer poor health or die prematurely themselves. And it means that the joyous event I experienced a year ago goes unrealized for hundreds of thousands of families.

It was with this reality in mind that we at Merck launched Merck for Mothers, our 10-year, $500 million initiative to reduce maternal mortality worldwide. I am proud to lead this effort as we strive to create a world where no woman dies giving life.

But if we are to make real strides in reducing maternal deaths, we need all hands on deck -- hands of both women and men. The U.N. Women's "He for She" campaign stresses this truth. I believe it is especially important to highlight the role of men in maternal health. If men value the mother of their children and support her health, we will no doubt see fewer and fewer women suffer fatal complications during childbirth.

Although we are often left out of the equation, men should be central to ensuring the health of women before, during and after childbirth, beginning with planning and nurturing families. Men are often the main decision-makers when it comes to both family size and household finances. Therefore, they need to understand what it takes to have a safe and healthy childbirth.

It is important that they know their children should be spaced far enough apart for the woman to recover and prepare for safe childbearing. And once a woman becomes pregnant, men can play a vital role in looking out for warning signs of health problems and seeking appropriate care. This means men must encourage their partners to attend antenatal check-ups -- and they should stay actively engaged throughout the pregnancy.

When it comes time for a woman to deliver, men can be powerful advocates for delivering in a facility, which may require careful budgeting to afford transportation, supplies and the care itself. While most women don't experience complications during pregnancy, it is critical that women are in the hands of a skilled health worker in case of an emergency, and men should be proactive about making that happen.

Finally, after a woman gives birth, men have to ensure the health and well-being of their family. On average, women reinvest 90 percent of their income in their family, whereas men only reinvest 30-40 percent. Fathers and husbands can do more to support their partners and children. Healthy families might begin with healthy mothers and children, but a "healthy" commitment from men is an integral factor in the equation.

There's an old Indian saying: "The moment a child is born, the mother is also born." I'd like to take this opportunity to acknowledge that the moment a child is born, so too is the father. We must take this concept seriously and continue to urge men to play stepped up roles in maternal health. Only then will all families be able to think of healthy childbirth as a "when," not an "if," just as I did last year when my grandson was born.