(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about the war on the poor.)
Pinpointing the exact moment is no easy task. We know that social movements usually coalesce as a result of scores, if not hundreds, of disconnected local efforts. But an international conference, like the Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, is a pretty good sign that a cause's moment has come. Indeed, in addition to the networking and peer-exchange opportunities they provide, such gatherings often create the "lift" any movement needs to become a global cause célèbre.
For me, the recent Women Deliver gathering in Washington, D.C., where more than 3,500 delegates from over 146 countries came together to discuss a shared agenda focused on the reduction of mortality rates among women, newborns, and infants, signaled beyond any doubt that the global women's health movement has arrived.
During the three-day event, attendees were treated to six plenaries, a hundred and twenty breakout sessions, and more than eight hundred speeches and presentations. And one didn't have to look far to find a shocking statistic. For me, the one that best summed up the challenge we face was this: Every minute of every day, a woman somewhere on the planet dies and thirty other women suffer long-lasting injury or illness from preventable pregnancy-related causes and complications.
Behind every statistic, of course, there are countless personal stories. At the opening plenary, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recounted his own. He was delivered, he told the attendees, at the family home in a small village in the Korean countryside. Some years later, as a child, he asked his mother why women who were about to give birth would gaze at the simple rubber shoes they left at the back door. His mother explained that Korean women about to give birth always wondered whether they would ever step into those shoes again.
It's no surprise that Ban's story resonated with the mothers, midwives, healthcare workers, and NGO leaders in attendance. All had come to the conference for the same reason: to send a message to elites and policy makers in every nation that women are vitally important drivers of social and economic benefit to their families, communities, and countries. And that investing in women is not only smart economics, it's smart policy. Which is why we should all work together to accomplish the UN Millennium Development Goals related to child and maternal mortality rates.
By the end of the conference, the truth of the old tagline "Women Hold Up Half the World" had been superseded by a new reality: Women are, in fact, the key to the health and prosperity of the global community. And without a redoubled commitment to reducing the social, economic, and health disparities that far too many women experience in every aspect of their lives, the fate of nations on every continent is at risk.
Will those who have nurtured the global women's movement look back at this year's Women Deliver conference as a turning point in the struggle to galvanize global public opinion and political will to end unacceptable levels of child and maternal mortality? Only time will tell. In the meantime, we can all do more to ensure that the Millennium Development Goals are achieved by 2015 -- and that tens of millions of women of child-bearing age and their young children survive and thrive in the twenty-first century.
-- Michael Seltzer