At the Women in the World Summit in New York City in early April, as I listened to business leaders and advocates and human rights activists lay bare the many struggles facing women today, I noted a common theme linking almost every story and message: mothers and motherhood. So many of the individuals I encountered at the event, women who have dedicated their lives and careers to combatting inequity, injustice and deprivation, cited their own mothers as their motivating force, or their role as parents seeking to build a better future for their children and their communities.
What struck me as I met these champions and thinkers, as they stopped by the Merck for Mothers lounge and scribbled their thoughts on our inspiration wall, was the universality of experience. No matter our birthplace or background, we all share some very basic desires: to be heard, to live with dignity, to have equal rights. We all want the freedom and the ability to choose when to have a family, to survive each delivery and to thrive so we can look after those we bring into this world.
So it made sense that the importance of maternal health was such a big part of the conversation.
I am proud that Merck for Mothers was able to bring together such an accomplished panel of entrepreneurs to help illustrate the role that the local private sector can play in improving maternal and reproductive health.
- We heard from Mary Goretti Musoke, founder of the private Maria Maternity Ward in her local community, and president of the Uganda Private Midwives Association, who is committed to helping girls and women in her community have safe pregnancies and deliveries, and is also helping other dedicated maternity care providers get the support they need to improve their skills and expand their reach in their underserved communities. Mary was an excellent representative of the MSD for Ugandan Mothers (MUM) program – a comprehensive program supported by MSD for Mothers that uses private sector approaches to ensure entrepreneurs like Mary who are improving the quality of private maternal health care by helping women overcome barriers to care, such as cost, transportation, and limited supplies, are doing so sustainably.
- We heard from Liya Kebede, whose foundation focuses on training health workers and increasing women's access to skilled birth attendants – a critical gap in care in the developing world.
- We learned how reporter and TV host Ivy Prosper is drawing attention to the plight of women in Ghana, and how, by sharing their stories of risk and loss with her audience of 7 million, she is helping to affect change in government policy.
- And we heard from Zubaida Bai, whose company AYZH introduced a safe birth kit to dramatically reduce the risk of infection. Such simple solutions can make all the difference in areas where resources are scarce.
With resiliency, creativity and courage, each of these women are finding ways to help make pregnancy and childbirth safer, to do their part to help end preventable maternal deaths. As Meryl Streep said during her rousing call to action at the close of the conference, "None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something."
We all have a role to play. A single midwife, like Mary, can help 500 women a year.
Next month's Women Deliver conference in Copenhagen will offer another opportunity to advance the advocacy agenda around maternal health. We look forward to sharing lessons from Merck for Mothers' early investments, and discussing ways we might expand and scale our "best buy" solutions. We will be presenting some of our early stage digital innovations, and look forward to getting real-time feedback from such an illustrious and global group of attendees.
I am glad Women Deliver is in Europe this year. It is a reminder that there are inequities in maternal health that need to be addressed in the developed world as well; that problems that are so common in low resource settings are spilling across borders in the midst of the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
"I never met a woman who was not strong," Diane von Furstenburg said. Let us harness that strength and keep working toward the day when no woman dies while giving life.