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Statement of Ms. Navanethem PillayUnited Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights at the Millennium Development Goals Review Summit 2010: “Women at the Centre of Achieving the MDGs”

20 September 2010

Distinguished Delegates,
Dear Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

The realization of Goal 5 on improving maternal health remains the most off-track of the MDGs. Although the number of women and girls dying from pregnancy and childbirth has decreased by 34% since 1990, the decline is still less than half the rate needed to achieve Goal 5 by 2015 and more than 350,000 women and girls die unnecessarily each year.  One preventable death is one death too many.

Loss of life should not be an inevitable danger inherent in pregnancy and childbirth.  Most deaths could be prevented with low-cost, targeted interventions, something which has been known to the medical profession for decades.  Even the way Goal 5 is framed is rather disturbing… can you imagine setting a target that would explicitly allow for 125,000 summary executions each year, or 125,000 cases of torture?  The implication seems to be that the lives of women are still considered to be less worthy. This is a rallying call for us to attack inequality with greater vigour.  

Therefore, I am glad to see that world leaders coming to this MDG Summit have recognized in the Draft Outcome Document that investing in the health and education of women and girls has a multiplier effect on productive efficiency and sustained economic growth. Indeed, women’s health is essential for their empowerment, which is also essential to achieving all development goals.

Investing in the lives of women and girls, mothers and their children, not only saves money and increases productivity but also promotes social stability.  Maternal mortality and morbidity trigger and aggravate cycles of poverty that cause generations of suffering and despair.  When women die, children, and especially girls, are at greater risk of dropping out of school, becoming malnourished and being exposed to exploitation.

Medical interventions alone are not enough to reduce maternal deaths and disabilities. The underlying causes often relate to gender inequality, gender-based violence and laws and policy decisions that discriminate against women.  As I said in my report to the Human Rights Council, a human rights approach is needed to achieve MDG 5, as well as all the other Goals.
A human rights-based approach helps us to understand that maternal mortality and morbidity are not simply development or public health issues. They are often the result of violations of the human rights to life, to health, to education, access to information and equality guarantees, among others.  Such an approach means ensuring accountability, participation, transparency, empowerment, sustainability, international cooperation and non-discrimination.

A human rights-based approach makes visible the connections between poverty, discrimination, inequality, health and other unfulfilled rights.  It allows for the identification of high-risk groups, an analysis of the complex gaps in protection, and accountability of States and donor organisations.  It also guides the formulation of policies, the setting of budgets and the implementation and monitoring of programs. The systematic implementation of human rights principles through all phases of the development process will result in empowered women and more responsive and inclusive health systems. These are critical to save millions of women’s lives.

Preventing maternal mortality and morbidity, particularly for women most at risk, can be the most powerful, single indicator of a State’s genuine commitment to combating gender inequality and discrimination.  We must empower women to make informed decisions that affect their sexual autonomy.  States must modify or abolish discriminatory laws and harmful social practices against women, including early and forced marriages, female genital mutilation or cutting. We must guarantee women’s right to participate in decision making processes that affect their sexual and reproductive lives such as family planning, contraception, pregnancy, childbirth and addressing unsafe abortion.

Ninety-nine per cent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, mainly in Africa and South Asia. We must, with a sense of   urgency and strong political will, address this shameful injustice. A compelling next step is to identify good practices, particularly from those developing countries that have shown remarkable progress in improving their maternal mortality ratios.  Mozambique, for example, has shown that political will is the most valuable commodity of all, dramatically reducing maternal deaths through low cost, targeted interventions in skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetric care. 

Realising women’s right to health requires States and donor organizations to invest in health interventions with proven life-saving impact.  The four main drivers for successful maternal mortality reduction policies are:

  • Access to sexual and reproductive health care,
  • Equal access to education,
  • Equal economic opportunities; and
  • Access to quality health care.

All these reveal key human rights components and are a powerful illustration of the inter linkages between human rights, maternal mortality and morbidity and the MDGs. I am very pleased to see these four main drivers are prominently reflected in the Summit Draft Outcome, as part of the way forward.

In June 2010, a total of 108 Member States issued a statement, calling for me to bring my report on Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights to your attention at the MDG Summit. It is my privilege to do so now, noting its congruence with many of the Draft Outcome Document commitments. Copies are available in the room and also on our website.

The next step is to insist that world leaders and health ministers prioritize women’s sexual and reproductive health rights, for the future of their countries and the future of our world.
Thank you.

Useful References:

More information on human rights and the MDGs:
OHCHR Study on Preventable Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights: http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/hrcouncil/docs/14session/A.HRC.14.39.pdf

Information Note on Maternal Mortality and Morbidity and Human Rights: http://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Infonote_MMM_report_25052010.pdf