Maternal Health Task Force

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Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health: Prof. Marleen Temmerman (Kenya)

By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Marleen TemmermanIn July 2016, global leaders gathered for the second annual Safe Mothers and Newborns Leadership Workshop hosted by the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) in partnership with the Barcelona Institute for Global Health (ISGlobal) and The Aga Kahn University and sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The participants represented 26 countries from five continents.

Professor Marleen Temmerman is Chair of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Aga Khan University (AKU) Hospital Nairobi and Director of the Centre of Excellence in Women and Child Health AKU – East Africa. Prior to that, she was the Director of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research (RHR) at the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva. She is the founding director of the International Centre of Reproductive Health (ICRH) at Ghent University with sister organizations in Kenya and Mozambique and a large global collaborative network. In 2007, Professor Temmerman was elected as a Senator in the Belgian Parliament where she was member of the Commission on Social Affairs and Chair of the Commission on Foreign Affairs. She is one of the penholders of the UN Global Strategy for Women’s, Children and Adolescents’ Health 2016-2030 and also serves as Senior WHO Advisor in Women, Adolescent and Child Health. She is a member of the Guttmacher-Lancet Commission on Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights in the Post-2015 World and a Senior Fellow in the Institute for Global Health Diplomacy in Geneva.

S: Tell me about yourself and the work that you do.

M:  I’m now the Chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Aga Kahn University in Nairobi, where we focus on education and training, research and service delivery. I’m happy to lead a group of young faculty and residents at a university that is engaged in a holistic approach to patient care. The training here is based on values of equity, humanity and pluralism. We also work in impoverished, rural areas where maternal and infant mortality is high and family planning uptake is low—where women are dying from anemia or because they don’t make it to a health facility in time to deliver, and babies are dying because they don’t get the care they need.

S: What is the biggest challenge in maternal newborn health? What is being done to address that challenge?

Maternal mortality is one of the silent tragedies. We have made a lot of progress during the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), but more needs to be done. Throughout my career as an obstetrician, I’ve helped about 18,000 women deliver their babies…I didn’t count them exactly, but I counted the 72 women who died in my hands. Most of those women’s deaths could have been prevented. The majority of women still die either during delivery or due to unsafe abortion. If we can fulfill the unmet needs of all women who want family planning services, we can help women space their families and reduce unwanted pregnancies. Family planning is crucial, and it’s the most cost-effective solution. We also need to invest in the “birth day,” the 24 hours around childbirth, to save maternal and newborn lives and prevent stillbirths. Kenya is doing a lot with providing free maternity care, but women still need to get to the facilities. We are working with the Kenyan government, non-governmental organizations, civil society and the health care sector to improve quality of care, reduce shortage of materials and equipment and alter the attitude of health care workers who are sometimes rude or disrespectful to women.

S: What does good leadership mean to you?

M: To be a successful leader, you need to work hard, listen to others and collaborate as a team. You need to motivate people and surround yourself with smart people who have more expertise than you do. It is important to listen to people, step back and reflect and also to live according to your values. I wouldn’t be able to work in an environment that didn’t support solidarity, pluralism, equity, feminism and the other values that are important to me.

S: What do you want MHTF readers to know?

M: The global efforts over the last ten years to reduce maternal mortality have worked. While we did not reach the MDGs in many countries, we have seen unprecedented gains. We have learned a lot about what works, and now it’s time to accelerate! Maternal mortality is not only related to issues in the health care sector—it also has to do with women’s rights, sexual and reproductive rights, equity and empowerment of girls and women. As Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla said, “Women are not dying of diseases we can’t treat… They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives are worth saving.”

Learn more about the link between family planning and maternal health.

Read another perspective on the free maternity care program in Kenya.

Did you miss previous interviews from the Global Leaders in Maternal and Newborn Health series? Find them here:

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