Just weeks ago, I met three little girls on a hot and humid morning in a remote village in Bihar. Their mother, Nisha, recently died during childbirth, and their aunt Radha took them in. Though outraged that her sister had died in the village because they were unable to organise transport, Radha was determined to raise her nieces alongside her own three children and to work with the village leaders to address the transport problem for pregnant women. When I met Radha, I asked how she would care for six children. She simply smiled and said, “I'll just have to wake up at 4 in the morning and work extra hard.”

Radha is one of the millions of women who deliver enormous benefits to our country, families and children. Women work in our banks, schools, offices, and hospitals; they lead in our Parliament; and they sell goods in our marketplaces. Women also carry and give birth to our children — the future of our country.

Yet, be it in Bihar, Rajasthan, or even in parts of Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra, the challenges of pregnancy and childbirth threaten women's lives every single day. In the past 10 years, we have seen a drop in maternal deaths in India, and I commend the government's efforts to increase safe deliveries with programmes such as the Janani Suraksha Yojna. Yet in India for every 100,000 live births, 254 women die. With statistics like this, we need to do much more.

We can prevent these deaths if we accelerate investments in a few key safe and affordable health services. All women must have access to family planning so that they can determine whether and when they want to have children. They need access to skilled care before, during and after delivery. We must develop emergency transportation systems; health providers trained in emergency obstetric care must be available at First Referral Units; and health centres and clinics must have surgical supplies if and when complications occur. And, lastly, women need access to safe abortion services and post-abortion care.

India has the skills and capacity to implement these services, but we can no longer afford to see the government as the only service provider. Non-governmental organisations across the country have shown the important role civil society plays in delivering maternal health services to communities and mobilising political support for safe motherhood initiatives. At the same time, Indian companies, donors, and academics have voiced concern, studied the best practices, and provided resources and new technologies to improve maternal health.

Together in unique, mutually beneficial partnerships, all of these efforts can expand services to those who need them.

Such investments and partnerships would play a critical role in our efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. Maternal and infant deaths not only cause immeasurable grief to families and communities; globally, these also account for $15 billion in lost productivity. That $15 billion could instead go towards strengthening economies, increasing education and careers opportunities for girls, and ensuring a brighter future for our children.

Additionally, giving women access to services like family planning would save money for India. Recent research from the Guttmacher Institute has shown that every $1 spent on family planning saves $1.4 in medical costs because access to family planning prevents unintended pregnancies and ultimately maternal death.

Leaders, activists, and officials from around the world will come together at Women Deliver in Washington DC from June 7 to 9 to call for such increased commitments to women and girls.

Women Deliver is the most important global conference on maternal health in the last 10 years. Coming at a time of significant momentum around women's health globally, it has the power to reshape the way the world thinks about this issue.

Though the goals of this conference are global, the issue is local. It is about our mothers, our sisters, and our daughters. We all have a role to play: men and boys as much as women; business as much as non-governmental organisations and the government; academics as much as donors. We — our President, Prime Minister, leaders, husbands, and ourselves — must be part of this movement. With partnerships, we will be able to provide women with the health services they need, but no one can do it alone.

Women Deliver looks to translate the talk about maternal health into action that will save the lives of women and girls. We must harness the momentum around this conference, join together, and take action here. Now is the time to recognise the critical roles women play in our country's future, roles they can fulfil if — and only if — they lead healthy lives. We know how to save the lives of women and girls in our country. Let us now proceed with urgency.

(The writer is Country Representative, India, Pathfinder International)

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