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Maternal and Child Health

Honourable senators, a 15-year-old girl in sub-Saharan Africa has a one in 31 chance of dying from pregnancy-related causes in her lifetime. In 2008, an estimated 358,000 women died from maternity-related causes, and in 2009, around 8 million children died before reaching their fifth birthday. It is clear that despite recent progress and growing international attention on this issue, there is still much work ahead in improving global maternal and child health indicators. Many countries are not on track to reach Millennium Development Goals 4 and 5 on maternal and child health. Moreover, progress in reducing maternal and child mortality has been uneven across regions and within countries.

As parliamentarians, we can play a critical role in the advancement of maternal, newborn and child health. That is why I was honoured to serve as the Canadian co-rapporteur for a draft report on the role of parliaments in addressing key challenges to securing the health of women and children for the hundred and twenty-fifth assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union this past October in Bern, Switzerland.

The IPU, the international organization of parliaments established in 1889, holds the objective of fostering contacts, coordination and the exchange of experience among parliaments and parliamentarians from 159 countries. Working together with my colleagues and co-rapporteurs MP Paula Turyahikayo of Uganda and MP Francisco Sardinha of India, we presented a draft report at the assembly that was debated by approximately 200 parliamentarians. Our report and the feedback we received during those deliberations in Bern will be used as the basis for drafting an IPU resolution that will be considered at the hundred and twenty-sixth assembly in April 2012.

Over the course of nearly four hours, 55 countries took the floor during the debate to comment on our report and to highlight a variety of issues pertinent to their national contexts. They acknowledged the health of women and children as a human rights issue of deep concern to parliaments. Inadequate, weak and failing health systems, insufficient resourcing, financial and human, particularly in the context of entrenched poverty, the marginalization of women and girls, as well as the social and economic inequalities which hinder demographic groups from accessing required health services were all identified as underlying causing of poor health outcomes. At all levels, preventing rather than curing was seen as a key strategy.

Our objective was to write a report that was international in scope and one that was focused specifically on concrete steps that could be taken by parliamentarians, a report that intended to serve as a framework and guide for parliaments to address specific issues related to maternal and child health. In addition, we wanted to emphasize the accountability of all actors in implementing existing promises, commitments and obligations.

Women and children’s health was a leading item on the agenda of the IPU assembly, even highlighted by the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his address to the delegates. I am happy to relay that many of those delegates recognized Canada’s leading role on the issue. I was approached by a member of the World Health Organization who expressed her admiration for Canada’s leadership in the IPU as well as on the world stage, especially in view of the Prime Minister’s recent commitment of $82 million to maternal and child health projects this past September.

As a Canadian senator, as a member of the Senate Human Rights Committee, and as an advocate for women’s rights, I was enthusiastic to see the IPU take up maternal and child health as key issues. I am honoured to serve as a co-rapporteur on behalf of Canada and look forward to speaking to you again after the hundred and twenty-sixth assembly this spring.