A CHINESE proverb: Women hold up half the sky underlines what women mean or should mean to humanity although they are not usually recognised for it; a reflection perhaps of the status of women in our societies.
Women do two-thirds of the world's work, receive 10 per cent of the women's income and own 1 per cent of the means of production is an oft-cited expression, globally-speaking, which attempts to encapsulate just one aspect of women's contribution.
Closer to home, recent market studies across the Pacific by UN Women established that market fees women pay (for Suva Market, $3.50 a day for example) significantly contribute to municipal council coffers; in fact, they give enough to subsidise town plans and ventures ù this is apart from the households and communities they support and the bridge that they are between urban consumers and rural producers.
The propensity of women to put their families before themselves may be 'maternal instinct' but it has also left us complacent and accepting of it with no second thought.
A woman's income is more likely to go towards food, education, medicine and other family needs. Women make important decisions like nutrition and resource-use which has a positive impact on families and by default, communities and potentially nations.
For all that the women do for families and communities, humanity's nonchalance manifests in the lack of both social and capital investment in girls and women.
In the world today, a woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications every minute.
A pregnant woman in a developing country has one in 78 chances of dying from pregnancy-related complication as opposed to the one in 1800 ratio for developed nations ù 99 per cent of maternal deaths occur in a developing country.
Between 350,000 and 500,000 women and girls constitute maternal death statistics annually. And for every woman that dies, another 30 suffer serious complications, injury, infection or disease. The bitter irony of giving life (in this context) is that the bulk of these deaths are preventable, five main causes WHO has identified include infection and hemorrhaging.
In the Pacific, five women a day die in these circumstances, a situation which must be reversed. One way of reversing this trend is through the (eight) Millennium Development Goals framework, which developing countries and their international partners use to focus on key dimensions of social and economic development.
Maternal health progress in the Pacific has been varied. Papua New Guinea (PNG), Kiribati, and the Federated States of Micronesia report the highest rate of maternal deaths in the region. On the other hand, recent statistics affirm 90 per cent coverage of skilled birth attendants; this is an encouraging milestone as they are critical to the reduction of maternal mortality.
Samoa reduced its maternal mortality ratio from 140 related deaths in 1991 to 22 by 2005; the Solomon Islands recorded a reduction of 142 deaths in 2006 compared to 550 in 1992; and Fiji reduced its ratio by 30 per cent from 41 in 1990 to 32 in 2008. Fiji needs to reduce its mortality rate by 70 per cent to achieve the MDG Five (Improve maternal health) by 2015.
Maternal health is important because it is seen as the first step towards the achievement of the other MDGs, particularly in terms of eradication of extreme poverty and hunger (MDG1) and the reduction of child mortality (MDG4). When 179 country representatives met in Cairo in 1994 for the United Nation's International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), the focus on considering population policies and programmes in technical demographics and numbers shifted to a human rights approach; that individuals are at the heart of development.
Maternal health is a human right, another reason why we must focus on improving it: it is an obligation most Pacific leaders have signed up for through international human rights instruments. It has been 12 years since world leaders adopted the MDGs; of all eight MDGs, improving maternal health has made the least progress. It also happens to be the least-funded.
The empowerment of women can fundamentally change our social and economic landscape. Maternal and new born mortalities cost the world $US15billion ($F26.8bn) annually.
As of 2008, some 200 million women in developing countries' contraception needs were not met; if they had been met, it would have prevented 23 million unplanned births a year, 22 million induced abortions, 142,000 pregnancy-related deaths, including 53,000 from unsafe abortions, and 1.4 million infant deaths.
Among the most vulnerable casualties are teenaged girls who become pregnant. In the Pacific, there is a silent epidemic of teen pregnancies that is taking girls out of schools and sometimes even threatening their lives; they are part of the 16 million adolescent girls who become mothers every year.
The Pacific region will need targeted interventions, adequate funding and the political will and commitment to achieve its MDGs.
Would there be more effort and funding if pregnancy was considered a disease? Perhaps. Should maternal health be prioritised in our national plans? If we want a fundamentally healthy population, yes. Can we achieve MDG Five by 2015?
Yes we can as United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon reminds us in his Foreword of the MDGs Report 2010: "The world possesses the resources and the knowledge to ensure that even the poorest countries and others held back by disease, geographic, isolation or civil strife can be empowered to achieve the MDGs."
History has taught us that women are resilient and passionate; that they will work with what they have and usually, always for loved ones. Are we doing enough to safeguard their health?
However we personally feel about this issue, at the end of the day, women should not die (preventable deaths) while giving life.
* Dirk Jena is the United Nations Population Fund Pacific sub-regional office director and representative.