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IMPROVING THE HEALTH OF WOMEN IN THE AFRICAN REGION

"What brings us here today are some sobering statistics. The fact that maternal mortality in sub-Saharan African is the highest in the world, estimated at 900 per 100,000 live births … that one out of 26 women in sub-Saharan Africa is still at risk of dying during childbirth, or becoming infertile as a result of it."

These soul-stirring words came from Liberian president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, at the launch of the Commission on Women's Health in the African Region which took place on 14 April at the city hall in Monrovia, Liberia's capital. "In my own country", President Johnson-Sirleaf continued, "the maternal mortality rate stands at close to 1 in every 100 live births"

Instructively, she described the data contained in her introductory remarks as "shameful numbers", not a surprising observation considering that in the developed world, one woman in every 7,300 is at risk of during childbirth.

The launch was attended by the Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General in Liberia, Ellen Loj, who described as "sobering" the 2009 Millennium Development Goals report which indicated that approximately half a million women and girls died as a result of complications during pregnancy, childbirth or die in the six weeks following delivery.

Elsewhere in her speech, the Liberian leader persistently stressed the need to "tackle this preventable tragedy among African women". She also very clearly articulated her ideas on what needs to be done: to advocate for women's health; to empower and scale up services for women; to mobilize increased resources to address women's health and, generally, to provide all-round support for the work of the Commission.

The concerns raised by President Johnson-Sirleaf are, in themselves, more than enough justification to establish the Commission which was put in the place in 2009 by the WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Luis Gomes Sambo, at the urging of the Health Ministers of the 46 countries which constitute the WHO African Region.

The Commission's principal brief therefore is to collect information on the key factors infl uencing the current state of women's health in Africa and make appropriate recommendations.

The 17-member multidisciplinary body is made up of top-notch politicians including parliamentarians, representatives of the African Union, and leading physicians, sociologists, economists, obstetricians, gynaecologists and researchers. President Johnson-Sirleaf is the Honorary Chair of the Commission.

Speaking at the launch of the Commission, Dr Sambo called for urgent and appropriate actions to deal with issues affecting women's health, such as physical, sexual and psychological violence, low economic status, early marriage of young girls, and female genital mutilation – all of which are common currency in some African societies.

He maintained that "Women's role in society goes far beyond child-bearing and includes other dimensions. Women need to be in good health and be given the opportunity to unleash their potential for social and economic prosperity". He also pointed out that the health sector had a specific responsibility to provide quality health care that responds to specific women's health needs along the life cycle, including safe pregnancy. "These endeavours require strong leadership, multidisciplinary thinking and multi-sectoral actions at all levels including communities, families and individuals' he said.

In her remarks at the launch, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General exhorted the Commission to work with WHO and its Member States in order to lay a strong foundation for fostering a comprehensive medical care programme with a focus on sexual and reproductive health. "Such a programme will help address most of women's health care needs and hopefully will reduce maternal deaths in the Region", she said.

She added that she looked forward to the Commission realizing its full potential and hoped that, through its work, good health and equitable health care will become a reality for African women.

The Minister of Health of Rwanda and current Chairman of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa, Dr Richard Sezibera, stated that: "Women's access to health must be a critical component of Africa's development agenda. In countries in sub-Saharan Africa, too many women die while giving life. And most of the causes of these deaths and preventable with concerted political action and smart interventions".

The expectation is that, as Dr Sambo said, the Commission will facilitate the identification of key problems; address their political, economic and social dimensions and tackle the clinical and public health aspects related to healthcare delivery.

In carrying out this important assignment, President Johnson-Sirleaf and her Commission need the support of all Africans and friends of Africa.