The Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference is currently underway in Mexico City. As the first global conference that is taking place since the 17 Sustainable Development Goals were formally adopted at the Sustainable Development Summit in New York just a few weeks ago, the Global MNH conference in many ways sets the stage for the journey towards this new bold global agenda – and is perhaps also a way to underscore the centrality and importance of maternal and newborn health and wellbeing for the realization of all the new Global Goals. We have to, literally, start with women and children – because without healthy mothers and healthy babies, there can be no sustainable development either.
Monday’s plenary theme at the Conference was titled “The Next Frontier: Approaches to Advance the Quality of Maternal Newborn Health Care”. While “innovation” is one of those words that in some instances seems to have lost its true meaning, when it comes to maternal and newborn health and especially reaching the most vulnerable, most marginalized and hardest to reach, innovation is absolutely crucial for real and meaningful progress. We’ve seen great success in improving the survival rates and general health and well-being of both mothers and newborns, but the success has been uneven and the road remains long to a world where no mother has to risk nor lose their lives because of pregnancy or birth and no baby has to die within first days or years of life because of conditions and medical problems we know how to treat. Out-of-the-box thinking, innovation and new approaches are needed to bring life saving and essential services to those in need – but innovation is also required for ensuring the availability of trained nurses, doctors and midwives, making essential medicines and equipment available even in the most remote and rural villages, creating infrastructure that allows mothers and babies to travel safely and affordably to the nearest clinics and hospitals and bringing services like sexual education or post-partum care to people via tools like mobile phones or the radio.
However, while bringing services to mothers and babies must be at the top of our priority list, there’s something else we have to maintain at the center of everything we do for maternal newborn health care: the needs and wishes of the mothers. No amount of innovation or new approaches can blur our vision of every single mother as an independent, empowered, rights-bearing and capable individual, who has to always have the right and ability to take control over her own body, her own reproductive choices and her own life – whether before pregnancy, during pregnancy, in labor or in the post-partum period. This has to be taken into account when we train health professionals, when we plan interventions and programs and when we implement them. This issue was also raised during the Plenary on Monday, for example by Address Malata, the Vice President of the International Confederation of Midwives who noted that addressing the needs of mothers cannot be solely about the medicine.
While we clearly need medicine and services to keep women and children alive and well, we cannot stop at that. We have to ensure that mothers are not only getting care, but high quality care. We need to ensure that mothers are not only getting high quality care, but that they are also respected and treated in a dignified way; that their wishes, thoughts and fears are not only listened to, but addressed and respected. We have to ensure that no procedures are done to women without their consent and that their bodily integrity is always protected and respected. Our work in maternal health care has to be grounded in values such as compassion, respect, empathy and understanding. No woman should ever have to go through having procedures done to them without their full understanding and consent, no mother should have to give birth without privacy, and no mother should feel like their right to control their family planning and bodily choices is taken away from them.
A healthy body needs many things to work. If our maternal health care systems were a body, let’s think of the veins and the bones as the tools we need, such as medicine, equipment, ambulances, clinics and roads – they form the structure around which everything else is built and the pathways that bring services and medicines to those who need them. The skin, lungs, life-saving organs, eyes and ears are the medical professionals, midwives, nurses and doctors who keep the body alive, keep the body breathing and functioning. But the heart of it all, the heart of maternal health care has to be our full, unwavering respect towards women. At the core of everything we do in maternal newborn health is, and will always be, the mother. We cannot ever forget that.
Featured image: Arne Hoel / World Bank