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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:23 pm on 30th March 2009.

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Photo of Christine Russell Christine Russell Labour, City of Chester 9:23 pm, 30th March 2009

We have heard some excellent contributions tonight from Members on both sides of the House. Time is not on my side, so I shall concentrate on one issue—the complete lack of progress in many African countries towards achieving the fifth millennium development goal on maternal health.

Across the world, on average one woman a minute dies in childbirth. The total of that awful statistic is 500,000 women every year. Indeed, that is probably an under-estimate, because in many countries no accurate figures are kept. Of the 20 countries with the highest rates of maternal mortality, 19 are in sub-Saharan Africa. MDG5 has two targets. The first is to reduce by three quarters, by 2015, the number of maternal deaths. The second is to provide universal access to reproductive health services. So little progress has been made in so many African countries in the last two decades that the situation is getting worse in some countries.

A couple of Members have highlighted Sierra Leone tonight. That country has the worst record for maternal mortality. In Sierra Leone, one in six women—a staggering statistic—is at risk of death during pregnancy or in childbirth. In northern Europe, the figure is one in 30,000. We have to consider the wider context. Such a death is not just a human tragedy for the woman and the children in her family. It has economic consequences.

In Africa, two thirds of the transport is done by women, not by trucks or planes. Women carry goods from A to B. It is mainly women who tend the crops and provide 80 per cent. of the food. Women are the breadwinners in a third of all households in sub-Saharan Africa. My message is that Africa cannot afford to lose 500,000 capable hands every year.

Why is that happening? I can quickly give four reasons. First, there is a lack of trained health care assistants. One in four women in Africa give birth having never seen a health professional at any point during their pregnancy. Secondly, across Africa women have no access to family planning services or safe abortions. Complications from unsafe abortions kill 14 per cent. of women who die. The next contributory factor, which has been mentioned tonight, is the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in many developing countries. A third of women in those countries are infected with HIV and, of course, women who are infected with HIV are five times more likely to die in childbirth. Last, but certainly not least, is the low status of women in many African countries and, I must say, the abject failure of the Governments to give any priority to women's rights and to improving women's access to free and affordable antenatal care.

As other Members have mentioned, as well as a lack of political will in developing countries there has been a lack of political commitment to making progress on MDG5 in the international community. I pay tribute to our Government, our country and DFID. We have given at least £50 million towards maternal health programmes.

Alistair Burt, who is no longer in his seat, has just mentioned the key role of British NGOs. They, too, have led the way. Save the Children, Oxfam and this year's Comic Relief all need to be congratulated. They have all brought the need for better and safer motherhood programmes into the public arena.

What more can we do? First, many of the countries with the highest maternal mortality are in the Commonwealth. I see Sir Nicholas Winterton has returned to his seat, and those of us who are on the CPA executive should propose that the British branch should organise and host a high-level seminar on the subject of the lack of progress on MDG5.

Secondly, there is still more that we can do to assist the training of health professionals—certainly midwives—in Africa. We give our academics a sabbatical year, so why do we not at least consider giving a sabbatical year to our NHS staff—or to those who are able to take one—so that they can go to Africa and pass on their skills and expertise?

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