Around the globe, from Cape Town to Kathmandu, from Manila to Mexico City, millions will be celebrating the 100th anniversary of International Women's Day on March 8 -- a day to honor the achievements made by and for women. Looking at this milestone through a global health lens, we see an increasingly positive picture, but the view is far from perfect. In fact, we stand at a crossroads.
Globally, we've seen a notable decline in maternal deaths from half a million women to 342,000 annually. This is still far too many, but it is an important step in the right direction. Yet this progress is at risk, with mounting efforts underway to deny access to one of the best investments in women's health: family planning.
In Bangladesh, just last month, a national survey showed a 40 percent drop in maternal deaths during the last decade. One of the contributing factors? Family planning. That is an unprecedented step forward.
Tanzania achieved a 21.5 percent drop in maternal deaths during the last five years, precipitated in part by increased access to and enthusiastic use of modern contraception. Another step forward.
In places like Ghana and Ethiopia, women every day have access to more contraceptive options -- another step forward -- as they endeavor to plan their families and define their futures. Women like Ayera Kabele, an ambitious 30-year old in Addis Ababa. She married in her early 20s and had a child soon thereafter. But she was also a student who wanted to finish college -- a dream achieved because she was able to delay having another child by using an IUD. Four years later, degree in hand, Ayera and her husband were ready for their second child -- another dream achieved. Yet another step forward.
This scenario between couples plays out every day around the world -- including here in the United States. These are universal conversations about when to start a family and how many children to have. Anyone who has been a party to one can appreciate how vital they are to the health and well-being not only of women, but also of their families as well.
Why is that? In addition to saving women from death and injury during pregnancy or childbirth, saving mothers' lives saves babies' lives. Family planning also boosts women's economic empowerment and creates an environment where children have a better chance not only to survive, but also to thrive. Strong and healthy families lead to stronger and more stable communities, in a virtuous cycle toward prosperity for nations.
We know that up to one-third of maternal deaths could be prevented if every woman who wanted to use contraception to limit or space her births was able to do so. In part, this is due to fewer unwanted pregnancies -- especially when women have no other options -- and thus to fewer women seeking abortion to end them. Mostly, though, it's because every pregnancy and childbirth poses risks, especially where medical care is inadequate, if it exists at all. This is how family planning saves lives -- and more.
Yet flying in the face of mounting evidence, there is a real risk that the United States foreign assistance budget will include drastic cuts to international family planning -- the catalyst to so much good in countless communities worldwide. Indeed, at a moment when every budget dollar must be used as efficiently and effectively as possible, few investments pay better long-term dividends than family planning.
Just four years remain until the deadline for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations. A report released last year rated access to reproductive health care as low or moderate in 70 percent of the regions surveyed. This is not acceptable.
There have been strong policy and funding commitments made in the United States' Global Health Initiative as well as at the United Nations (U.N.) to bolster access to and support for family planning as vital investments to improve the lives of women and families worldwide. The year 2010 also saw the launch of the first-ever U.N.'s Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health and ongoing efforts by the State Department's Office on Global Women's Issues to link foreign policy with women's rights. There is much reason for optimism.
As we mark the centennial of International Women's Day, supporters of women's health worldwide must continue to advocate for family planning and reproductive health services, which have done so much for women and girls in the U.S. and in so many countries around the world.
See the Global Health Council position paper on Maternal, Newborn, Child and Reproductive Health.