A three-day conference on ways to reduce preventable deaths of newborns and women during pregnancy has opened in London.
The Women Deliver Conference has attracted about 2,000 delegates, including politicians from Africa and Asia, heads of UN agencies, health professionals, human-rights activists, and faith groups from 75 countries.
The conference kicks off amid concern that Millennium Development Goal Five, which aims to improve maternal health, may not be achieved. The target set by the United Nations is to reduce maternal mortality by 75% between 1990 and 2015.
The London conference marks the anniversary of the Safe Motherhood Initiative launched in Kenya in 1987. Addressing delegates during the opening of the conference the director of Family Care International, Jill Sheffield, said little progress has been made since then.
"We know what to do to stop these needless deaths, it just is not happening fast enough. A woman dies needlessly every minute of every day simply related to her being pregnant. That is about the same rate as it was 20 years ago in 1987. This is outrageous, it is unacceptable, and we are not going to have this anymore."
During the past 20 years, 20-million women have died of avoidable complications such as high blood pressure or excessive bleeding during childbirth. Often the baby dies too or does not survive the next few years without a mother.
In addition, tens of thousands of pregnant women die in back-street abortions in countries where contraception is not readily available and abortion is heavily restricted or banned.
The majority of the more than one-half million maternal deaths in 2005 occurred in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia.
Britain's Secretary of State for International Development, Douglas Alexander, called for leaders of the world's poorest countries to make sure that health services reflect the needs of women.
"To improve women's' health we must improve their rights, the right to education, the right to freedom from the threat of violence and the right to make informed choices about their health and about their families' health. That means women designing the services that they also use, women contributing to the political agenda and indeed setting the agenda and leading the agenda."
Alexander announced a 200-million dollar British government pledge to help prevent unwanted pregnancies and make childbirth safer. He told the conference the money will help the UN Population Fund support governments in Africa and South Asia in providing more condoms, contraceptive pills, and advice on sexual health to poor girls, women, and men.
Though the problem is worse in poor countries, Family Care International's Sheffield noted that disparities exist between the rich and poor in all countries. One-in-seven Afghan women will die during pregnancy, one in 25,00 in the United States and one in 30,000 in Sweden. She said the deaths are avoidable and what is lacking is the political will to do the right thing for women and the world.