Buzz Meeting: Is There a Maternal Health Movement?

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By: Janna Oberdorf, Director of Communications and Outreach, Women Deliver

I was incredibly lucky and honored to participate in the Maternal Health Task Force Buzz Meeting today with a room full of professional researchers, advocates, and maternal health experts from around the world. The day was interesting, educational, and challenging all at the same time, and I feel like I left with a lot of difficult questions to answer in my own work and to bring back to my organization.

One of the biggest and most contentious questions posed during the day’s discussion was: “Is There a Maternal Health Movement?” Jeremy Shiffman, associate professor of Public Administration and Policy at American University, laid out a clear and concise answer from his perspective: No. According to Professor Shiffman, grassroots mobilization and action, an element that he defines as essential and at the core of a “movement,” is missing from the maternal health work and community. Unlike other movements, including HIV/AIDS, breast cancer, or the Arab Spring, the maternal health community is still weak in engaging grassroots-level action, according to Professor Shiffman.

I agree that the maternal health community has a long way to go in mobilizing the women and the families on the ground who are truly affected by maternal mortality and morbidities. But, I am perhaps more optimistic than Professor Shiffman. I see the seeds that have been planted – though I know that it will take time, effort, and care to grow those seeds into action. Much of today’s discussion focused on the fact that there has been a “top-down” push for maternal health instead of “bottom-up” – a criticism of global advocacy. What I am hoping for, and what I think we need to work towards, is a sandwiching of advocacy and activism for better health for girls and women around the world. Let’s refocus from top and bottom, and start to focus on a push from both sides.

Additionally, much of today’s discussion was around whether we need a maternal health movement? What constitutes a movement and what doesn’t? What would and should a maternal health movement look like? Should it mimic the HIV/AIDS movement or have an identity all its own? How can we encourage a movement in countries where women are disenfranchised, poor, illiterate, and/or marginalized? To me, all of these questions are missing the point.

However you want to define a “movement,” and whether you think it’s happening right now or might happen in the future, I feel like we would all agree to a few key points:

  1. We need to raise awareness about maternal health and quality of care within communities and to educate the women who are vulnerable to maternal mortality and morbidity to seek proper care.
  2. By raising the awareness among women, their families, and their communities, the goal is for them to seek quality care and understand that maternal deaths aren’t normal, aren’t right, and aren’t something everyone should just expect to happen based on the flip of coin.
  3. When women and communities understand the components of the continuum of care and a healthy pregnancy and childbirth, and if they don’t receive the care they seek, they should push their governments to action and hold them accountable.

To me, this is the point. We need women on the ground to understand maternal health, to seek maternal health services and information, to understand that maternal deaths are not a necessary evil, and to hold their governments accountable when they are denied such services. Call it movement… call it grassroots advocacy… call it activism… call it what you will. The goal is the same. And we need to encourage this type of action.

At Women Deliver, we’ve been pushing for a global response to maternal mortality in the form of political will and financial investment in MDG5. And over the last few years, we’ve had some success in getting on the political agenda and in having promises and commitments made to maternal health. But we need to focus on the sandwich – we need women, families, and communities on the ground to push for improved health services for girls and women in their nations while continuing to put pressure on global actors to meet their commitments. It doesn’t matter to me if you call it a movement or if it goes down in the history books as one, but I think we’d all agree that there needs to be a push from both sides to have sustainable progress on issues that affect girls’ and women’s health.