What’s in a Name? A Call for Increased Maternal and Newborn Health Integration

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By: Alice Irene Whittaker-Cumming, Executive Director, Mother Nature Partnership

Alice Irene Whittaker-Cumming

The language that we use is important. The words that we choose to communicate our ideas reveal where our priorities are, and they inform the action that we take as a result of these ideas. Verbiage translates the thoughts and intentions of a person, or persons, to other people and organizations and eventually shapes the action that we take. Because of this, it is crucial that we place mothers—women—at the core of Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) from the very moment that we engage in conversation.

Earlier this year, there was an opportunity for a worldwide conversation about the important Every Newborn: An Action Plan to End Preventable Deaths (ENAP). Diverse actors were asked for their input on the first draft in a multi-sectoral consultation. The Action Plan launched on June 30th in Johannesburg, South Africa at the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Partnership for Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health (PMNCH) Partners’ Forum. There has been global colloquy about this plan that, led by WHO and coordinated by a central group of experts, drew on the expertise and insights of stakeholders at multiple global and regional levels. The plan is at once aspirational and practical, with a strong action plan and five guiding principles, as well as milestones and a monitoring framework. Positioned in a global landscape of renewed MNCH commitments and following the Canadian-hosted Saving Every Woman Every Child Summit, this document comes at a crucial moment when there is unified, global momentum towards ending the preventable deaths of the most vulnerable women, newborns and children.

This all sounds great. And it is great. The document is to be applauded, and will mobilize global players towards an imperative goal of ending preventable deaths of the most vulnerable. To come together in open discussion and accelerate the global progress in MNCH is essential and admirable, and the openness to stakeholders’ insights is important. But where is the ‘M’—mother—in the newborn-focused Every Newborn Action Plan? To echo the importance of point 4 of the Maternal Health Task Force’s Manifesto for Maternal Health post-2015, “(T)he successful framework of the continuum of care must be redefined to make women more central to our notions of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health”.

blog-image2-8.4.2014Yes. Let’s make women more central-because they are the core of MNCH, their improved health outcomes directly improve the health of newborns and children, and because they deserve it in their own right, as a human right.

It is important that we reinforce the role of “M” in MNCH so that we can sustain and accelerate the progress that has been realized. ENAP is a strong and important document and is positioned on the continuum of care, and it emphasizes equity with women being integrated throughout the plan. However it is important that we be bolder about bringing women to the fore of the continuum of care.

Placing Women at the Core

A woman as an independent being has value irrespective of her role in MNCH and by positioning her at the centre, we recognize this value and also create health gains that extend to her newborns and children. Diminishing her central role is to devalue her, at a crucial moment when we need to revalue her. This is particularly salient in cultural contexts where a woman’s human rights are disregarded. A woman is not a bystander or vessel moving from stage to stage of the continuum of care, but rather is a central figure whose health and well-being is necessary first and foremost for her own fulfillment. Her health is also essential for the delivery and ongoing health of infants and children who grow to fulfill their own selves, and it is through a woman’s health that we can end preventable deaths.

And so again I restate it: The language that we use is important. By being inclusive of women and bring them to the centre of MNCH, we make a bold statement about our priorities and stand ready to accelerate the health of women, newborns and children. We encourage theoreticians and practitioners in the MNCH space—private, public and civil society sectors alike—to explicitly emphasize the ‘M’ in MNCH. For her newborn, for her community, and for her.

Alice Irene Whittaker-Cumming is the Executive Director of Mother Nature Partnership, an organization that provides access to menstrual health programming and tools, so that every women and girl has the choice to participate fully in her own life. Mother Nature Partnership has been recognized with a Nelson Mandela and Graça Machel Innovation Award as well as Bill and Melinda Gates/Grand Challenges Award.