The closing plenary of the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference began on an optimistic note. Cesar Victora, Emeritus Professor of Epidemiology at the Federal University of Pelotas took to the stage and told the audience that globally, the gap in coverage of health care is closing. The gap between how the rich experience health care and how the poor experience health care is decreasing.

Despite the progress, the gaps remain, without a shadow of a doubt, unacceptably large. They will continue to increase if vulnerable populations are unable to access the life-saving interventions that all women and newborns need and deserve.

Alicia Ely Yamin, Policy Director, Francois Xavier Bagnoud Center for Health and Human Rights, Harvard University posed an interesting question: why do we care? Why should we care particularly about equity in health when we tolerate such grievous inequality in so many other areas of our societies? Health, Alicia continued, gives us ultimate agency in our lives. It gives us agency as individuals and as members of communities and societies. Sexual and reproductive health matters enormously to all people, and particularly to women, because it is sexual agency that allows us to have control of our bodies and subsequently, control of our lives. Sexual agency allows every single one of us to define ourselves by our humanity and not by our sexuality – and sexual agency depends entirely on access to sexual and reproductive health services.

All too often, women and children in particular experience their poverty and marginalisation through their contact with health systems. In too many instances, maternal deaths occur as the culmination of lives filled with poverty and discrimination and void of choice.

So what does a human rights lens add to discussions on equity? Quite simply, it forces us to look at the faces, and into the eyes, of the people living such lives. It requires us to focus on accountability, and to understand accountability depends on regulation of power. We want and need people to participate meaningfully in both the definition of their own problems and the construction of their own solutions – this requires devolution of power – a vast and challenging task.

As we move forward from the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference, we need to adopt a visionary approach. Alicia shared with us her ideas of how we can do this:

  • First – we must focus on identifying both pathways and opportunities for change within the Sustainable Development Goals, rather than solely on measuring targets.
  • Second – we must shift the weight of attention from global work to frontline work; from global conferences like this one to front line workers and individual lives.
  • And finally – we must acknowledge that the egregious inequities that currently exist in maternal and newborn health are not tragedies, they’re injustices.

At this pivotal moment in global history, it is imperative that we leave no one behind. No one today, no one tomorrow, and no one at anytime in the future. Today Girls’ Globe asked speakers and conference participants a key question:

How can we ensure no mothers or newborns are left behind?


Manuela, Mexico City


Marion, Liberia


Watch the recorded plenary

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  1. One of the greatest challenges faced by pregnant women here in Liberia when it comes to provision of health care is access. The roads leading to the health care facilities especially in the rural areas are unimaginably too bad for even a car to use, let alone a motor-bike. And another issue is the unavailability of enough health care facilities in the whole Country. Health staff can be trained in EmONC, but how does a pregnant woman for example, living a 3 days walk from the nearest health facility, get the quality health services she requires? So yes its true that lets move away from the conference halls and be in the front line.

  2. Great to hear visionary approach from global to front line. Will be more appreciated if we transect at different level in geographic area in a country like India where I work. Will definitely then change the scene of mothers and newborns a drastic way in less time.( tribal area are affected most.) Likewise.

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