For more than three decades, I've worked in countries affected by war and natural disasters to build peace and support post-emergency reconstruction. Working in Angola, Bangladesh, Central African Republic, Haiti, and elsewhere, I've learned that when social order and social services break down, it is women, girls and other marginalized populations who suffer most. I care about reproductive health care both because it is essential to securing women's own health and well-being and because such support is a great investment in stronger families, more secure and stable communities, and vibrant economies.
In the rush to end conflicts or assist the survivors of emergencies, we often forget that the clearest sign of recovery and the most important peace dividend is the restoration of basic social services, including universal access to reproductive health care. I've fallen prey to that lapse myself.
|Countries that respect and empower women do not tend to traffic in drugs, people, or weapons…and they don't require American boots on the ground.
For nearly four years in the mid-1990s, I served as the American ambassador to Angola and part of the Joint Peace Commission, seeking to end a 20-year civil war that had cost a half million lives and left four million people homeless. The commission was made up of 40 men and no women, and so perhaps it wasn't surprising that we dealt mostly with demobilization of ex-combatants, demands for political power, and wealth sharing arrangements, and gave short shrift to concerns most relevant to the civilian population. Such neglected concerns included girls' education, accountability for abuses against women and children during the conflict, restoration of reproductive health care services, and efforts to combat infant and maternal mortality.
I remember traveling to a camp for displaced people and talking to a group of male "elders" about what we could do to restore momentum to the faltering peace process. They spoke angrily against the abuses of the other side, vilifying them. Then I talked with the women in the camp. As we sat under a baobab tree, a different story emerged.
The women said the real enemy was poverty, hunger, and disease. War and displacement had removed the social safety net from previous eras, and they now faced rampant infant and maternal mortality, low birth weights, girls giving birth before their bodies were fully developed, and the lack of trained birth attendants, basic anti-hemorrhaging drugs, and family planning supplies and information.
They said, "If you want people to support the peace process, make it matter to their lives." So we began to implement programs to address these concerns, not only in that camp, but throughout the country. In particular, we helped train women themselves to provide midwife services, monitor infant growth, and educate each other as to their family planning options. Our motto was: "Nothing about them without out them."
Sure enough, we found that meeting the unmet need for voluntary family planning and maternal health services cut maternal deaths by a third, and reduced infant mortality by 20 percent. Taking this pattern worldwide, it's been shown that at least 250,000 maternal deaths and as many as 1.7 million child deaths would be averted if women were empowered to reduce high-risk pregnancies, to allow sufficient time between pregnancies, and to have access to reproductive health counseling and condoms.
I've been fortunate in my career to help lead organizations, including World Learning and the U.S. Agency for International Development, that believe that every woman deserves the right to quality reproductive health care. At World Learning, health issues figure prominently in our study abroad opportunities, through which some 2,000 undergraduates spend part of their junior year abroad, studying key issues, living with local citizens, and doing community service. We have programs addressing health issues in such countries as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, India, Jordan Kenya, South Africa, and Vietnam.
Through our global development programs, we are working in Ethiopia to address HIV prevention and other reproductive health care issues at 100 worksites throughout the country and to serve 40,000 orphans and vulnerable children at 200 primary schools there.
In Angola we are working under the Eye Kutoloka project to improve the ability of city governments and NGOs to jointly deliver quality basic services in health, education, and sanitation. In Jamaica and the Bahamas we are working with populations most at risk of transmitting HIV/AIDS by strengthening the capacity of innovative NGOs and organizations.
Further, we organize exchange visits to the United States of groups of foreign professionals and students addressing issues of gender equality and women's empowerment.
World Learning also actively advocates for increased support for family planning and maternal health care programs. In this advocacy we point out that this is an investment in the rights of women, the well-being of communities, and the future of countries. In addition we stress that empowering women and promoting gender equality is in America's national security interest as well.
Countries that respect and empower women do not tend to traffic in drugs, people, or weapons; they don't transmit pandemic diseases that affect our health; they don't harbor terrorists or pirates who threaten our security; they don't send off large numbers of refugees across borders and oceans; and they don't require American boots on the ground. Adding this dimension to our advocacy will help build support for achieving strong support and robust budgets for this vital cause.
I conclude by congratulating the Global Leaders Council for Reproductive Health, the United Nations Foundation, the Aspen Institute, former president of Ireland Mary Robinson and her council of 18 sitting and former heads of state, high-level policymakers, and other leaders for their work to advance reproductive health for lasting development and prosperity. Together, we can ensure that every person who wants access to high quality reproductive health care and family planning assistance can get it. We owe the next generation of world citizens nothing less.
DONALD STEINBERG is president and CEO of World Learning, an international nonprofit organization that provides education, exchange, and development programs in more than 60 countries. Prior to joining World Learning, Steinberg served as deputy administrator at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), where he focused on the Middle East and Africa; organizational reforms under the USAID Forward agenda; the inclusion of women, people with disabilities, LGBT persons, and other marginalized groups into the development arena; and expanded dialogue with development partners.