By Amy Lieberman WeNews correspondent Monday, September 20, 2010

The U.N.'s $169 billion catch-up plan for global maternal health--the runt of the development-goal litter--faces a final checkup meeting in New York this week. As a maternal death clock tick-tocks in Times Square, the big question is money.

UNITED NATIONS (WOMENSENEWS)--The U.N. this week will be considering plans to save 16 million women's lives by 2015, as part of a major meeting focused on poverty- reducing goals. The big billion dollar question is not how it can be done but whether the U.N. member states will provide enough funding.

"It's a wonderful plan, but if the funding doesn't show up and it isn't implemented, then it doesn't help much," said Mary Anne Mercer, director of the Timor-Leste program for Health Alliance International, a Seattle-based international public health organization.

The effort to put women's health back on the policy map comes days after Michelle Bachelet, the 58-year-old former president of Chile, was appointed head of the United Nations' new agency uniting four existing women and gender offices. The entity is called U.N. Women and has an unprecedented $500 million annual budget, more than double the existing resources available for all four agencies.

The special interest placed on women's health and gender equality couldn't come soon enough.

Millennium Development Goal No. 5--to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by two-thirds in 2015 from 1990 global-average levels of 400 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births--is lagging the most out of eight major initiatives on poverty, health and equality adopted by the U.N. 10 years ago (at the start of the new millennium, hence their name.)

Only a handful of goals--like doubling access to safe drinking water and halving the number of people living under the international poverty line--appear to be on track. Many are still teetering, able to flop either way, but MDG No. 5 already seems out of reach.

Recent U.N. estimates indicate maternal deaths have decreased by 34 percent since 1990, but the annual 2.3 percent decline--less than half the targeted 5.5 percent figure--hasn't dipped fast enough to reduce the number of approximately 1,000 women who die every day from complications in pregnancy and childbirth.

Maternal health is a key indicator of a nation's well-being. The loss of young women who provide care and leadership to families is also said to act as a major barrier for nations to build strong communities.

To draw attention to the stalled progress, Amnesty International, the London-based rights group, launches a "maternal death clock" today in the show-biz epicenter of New York City's Times Square. The clock will keep tally of the real-world women dying every minute during the U.N.'s three-day meeting.

In a kick-start effort, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in June unveiled what has come to be called the Global Strategy on Women and Children's Health. It will cost $26 billion in 2011 and calls on all countries to integrate special health services for women into their health-delivery systems and to plan self-sustaining financing.

"This provides a starting point of a multi-year, multi-sector road map to work together to improve the health of women," said Jill Sheffield, president of Women Deliver, a global watchdog group focused on MDG No. 5. "I think there's new wind in our sails and it's important wind, it's not just hot air."

Some countries opted out of the initiative, but 25 other countries held consultative sessions this summer and will come to this week's 2010 Millennium Development Goals Summit with tailored catch-up plans.

Programs to discourage child marriage and provide sexual and reproductive health education to young people will also be proposed at the meeting.

Some countries will unveil budget increases for midwives, emergency obstetric care and free health care for pregnant women, said Laura Laski, chief of the United Nations Population Fund's sexual and reproductive health branch. Health budget increases could materialize if countries decide to announce re-appropriation of existing funds.


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