Meeting the Need for Health Workers

Everywhere women are choosing how to celebrate International Women's Day. The vast majority, of course, mark the day as they always do -- just trying to survive and do their best for their families. For those of us fortunate to be able to take time out to do something more, it is vital we understand how much our collective efforts make a difference.

We are still faced, after a century of International Women's Days, with the challenge of achieving equality, opportunity and fairness for girls and women. We need this the most in the poorest parts of the world.

We have our sights set on the UN's Millennium Development Goals as targets for reducing global poverty including a gender goal, and one on maternal mortality. We can all hold our international leaders to account in reaching these goals. And in so doing we will play our part, every single day, in some small way to make a difference for girls and women.

As we aim to tackle the great injustice of high maternal mortality and to improve infant and child survival and health, we should draw on all that women have to offer. We must find a way to put more women into dignified work -- and this provides an opportunity to meet a great unmet need. That need is more trained health workers. 3.5 million of them in fact.

To mark the 100th International Women's Day, it is as good a place as any to start with UN Women's objective to seek a pathway to decent work for women. Back in 1911, the very first International Women's Day was held in a number of European cities to protest unfair wages and poor conditions of work for women. Today, much of the focus lies similarly in seeking equal treatment, repairing injustices and opening up the opportunity for women to improve their lives in the poorest parts of the world. As UN Women's Executive Director, Michelle Bachelet, said just last week, "Women's strength, women's industry, women's wisdom are humankind's greatest untapped resource." So the call for health workers could not be more timely.

This week, the international professional associations representing 15 million of the world's nurses, midwives, obstetricians, gynecologists and pediatricians have signed a powerful letter to President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania. This letter calls for proper investment in health professionals. President Kikwete is the African co-chair (alongside Prime Minister Harper of Canada) of the Commission on Information and Accountability for Women and Children's Health, aiming to steer resources towards results for reducing maternal and child mortality.

As supporters of the letter, we are counting on the Commission to build momentum on health workers at global moments throughout 2011. Building on this, we believe the UN General Assembly in September will be an ideal moment for donor and developing country governments to make specific commitments to provide more and better trained nurses, midwives, doctors and community health workers, and enabling work environments.

The UN Secretary General's Global Strategy for Women and Children's Health -- which launched with $40 billion in commitments in September 2010 -- is continuing to gather momentum. In addition to government pledges, nearly 20 global corporations have made commitments. These include Johnson & Johnson's pledge to reach 120 million women and children in low-income countries over the span of five years, through avenues including grants, medicine donations, and research and development. In addition, international organizations such as Care, Save the Children and World Vision have not only promised programming but have also made large financial commitments.

Equally important, civil society -- including the White Ribbon Alliance (WRA)'s National Alliances, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Save the Children, Care, Family Care International and World Vision -- are holding national governments accountable for commitments made.

For example, WRA Uganda is targeting district leaders to increase budgetary allocation for maternal health and to address the health worker gap. In Nigeria, WRA is calling on state-level members of Parliament to invest in cost-effective, life-saving interventions and is tracking the national and state level contributions to the health budget. In India, where government policies are strong, WRA is launching a nation-wide campaign to prepare women, families and communities to prepare for birth and complications.

I know that the hardest thing for grassroots organizations and local advocacy groups who hold other accountable on the ground is to get good support. Yet, whether it is through public hearings, use of checklists, verbal maternal death autopsies -- people-centered advocacy works. It must be time for donor governments and multi- or bi-lateral agencies to stop just talking about accountability and governance and start backing those individuals and organizations that really do deliver day after day. A bit of brave support extended in that direction would yield some great dividends.

And the grassroots activities don't stop there for the White Ribbon Alliances and other NGOs, which in many countries are focusing not only on women and health workers. Efforts are also being made to engage young people, parliamentarians, men, religious leaders and the corporate sector -- and all learning from each other about how to make a big noise on maternal and newborn health with innovative activities like musical convoys, films, concerts, fashion shows, public hearings, marches and more... now in more than 150 countries! There is no end to the ways that we can all play our part to make this 100th International Women's Day a real springboard from which to make a genuine difference and to see lasting change finally arrive for those girls and women who need it most.

Sarah Brown is global patron of the White Ribbon Alliance and author of Behind The Black Door published by Ebury Publishing on March 3, 2011. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahBrownUK