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Cheers for RH Law at ‘Women Deliver’

KUALA LUMPUR—Health Secretary Enrique Ona had some good news to share during an informal chat on the sidelines of the “Women Deliver” conference that closed yesterday.

True, the maternal mortality rate (MMR), which measures the number of women (per 100,000) who die due to causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, was reported to have risen, from 162 in 2009 to 221 in 2011. But that figure, said the health secretary, was “retrospective” and covered the years before  P-Noy took office.

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New data to be released sometime this year will show that the MMR has actually fallen. “I dare say it might be around 90,” Ona said, which would bring down our MMR to two digits for perhaps the first time since such statistics were collected. Still, it is quite a ways from 52, which is the goal the Philippines has committed to as one of our Millennium Development Goals.

Yet it must be cold comfort to realize that in much of the developing world, “Goal No. Five,” which calls for the reduction of maternal deaths, will most probably not be met by governments.

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That’s one reason thousands of women—and men, and young people—have gathered in this city’s well-appointed Convention Center to talk about the health of mothers and children. And it is hoped that after all that talking, schmoozing, negotiating, arguing, convincing, and performing, some action will be taken.

Still, asserted Jill Sheffield, president of Women Deliver, “words are important.” And she had two choice words to remind everyone of the reason they were all gathered: equality (to seek to end growing social injustices in the world) and leadership (to “get IT done” and fulfill “the full agenda of a sustainable world”).

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In every plenary session here, each time the RH Law was mentioned there was much applause and celebration.

“It has been an amazing year for family planning advocates, especially in the Philippines,” said Ona during the second-day plenary, citing the passage of the RH Law which he attributed to “strong political will, a committed national leadership, and widespread support of the community.”

Ona shared the stage with other health ministers at the plenary headlined by Melinda Gates, cochair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). It was Osotimehin who placed the RH Law in its proper context, saying its passage was partly the accomplishment of Rafael Salas, a Filipino and the first executive director of the UNFPA.

A day earlier, Women Deliver coorganizer Dr. Raj Karim said it was time “to celebrate the great strides made in Asia for improving maternal and children’s health.” He cited “the dramatic reduction in pregnancy and childbirth deaths,” and “in the Philippines, the passage of the RH Law.”

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Certainly basking in the acclaim of this signal accomplishment were two legislators in this conference, who had played heroic roles in the “nearly 15 years and five Congresses” it took to pass the RH Law. One of them is former congresswoman Janette Garin, a third-termer whose seat as representative of Iloilo is now occupied by her husband. As deputy speaker, Garin worked tirelessly to shepherd the measure through the House, including enduring seemingly interminable interpellation replete with biblical quotations and even a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed.

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The other legislator was Sen. Pia Cayetano, who in an afternoon plenary gave a talk on the “Struggles and Strategies to Pass the RH Law.”

“You have to have a plan,” she advised the audience who had gathered to listen to talks on “building support for social change.” But aside from a plan, an advocate would need “tenacity and endurance,” with the senator saying she drew on her experience as a marathoner and triathlete, “knowing that there was a finish line.”

“Single-mindedly pursue your goal,” she said. “Persistence pays off.” She is to be recognized for this accomplishment at the closing ceremony.

But there were grim reminders still of the many challenges that lie ahead. Ona’s talk was preceded by a video prepared by a team from Women Deliver (and sponsored by the Gates Foundation) on the situation of women and children in the Philippines and the struggle to pass the RH legislation.

Among the interviewees were two mothers, one of whom had given birth to 16 children, but with the death of four of them, was now raising a family of 12. Another mother, interviewed in her slum community, had 24 children. UNFPA Philippine country representative Oguchi Daniels, who was seated among the audience, said the people around her gasped audibly when the interviews with the two women were shown, and then “looked accusingly at me as if it was my fault.”

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There were “superstars” aplenty at this conference, including two European princesses, at least four first ladies, Melinda Gates, Chelsea Clinton, and even pop star Mandy Moore. They were joined by health ministers, parliamentarians, international civil servants, youth delegates, and activists of all stripes.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, ascending the stage holding hands with his wife, Rosmah Mansor, was the keynote speaker. He welcomed the participants from 145 countries. Having just won reelection, Razak pledged a “new and heightened commitment to empower women and girls,” starting with a drive to “increase the labor force participation of Malaysian women up to 50 percent,” from the present rate of 47 percent.

It might seem like such a minuscule accomplishment, but like the passage of the RH Law in this country, still a significant step, marking the arduous journey of women and girls for full equality, full recognition, a full life of dignity and joy.

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TAGS: `women deliver’ conference, column, RH law, Rina Jimenez-David
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