“We are agents of change, we are drivers of progress, we are makers of peace – all we need is a fighting chance.”
This quote from Hillary Clinton at the 2013 Newsweek/Daily Beast Women in the World summit certainly captured the theme of the conference. Of course, by “we,” the former Secretary of State is referring to women – and how fitting for someone who is herself an agent of change, a driver of progress and a maker of peace to call for more rights for women.
Women in the World brought together some of the most influential and recognizable female leaders from across the globe to discuss pressing issues affecting women today. Speakers like Meryl Streep, Oprah Winfrey and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice touched on topics ranging from women’s education to violence against women to the importance of female mentorship in corporate America. But what stood out to me in most of the presentations was a mention of – if not an exclusive focus on – one unifying driving force behind each of these remarkable changemakers: their mother. Whether it was Hillary Clinton talking about the opportunities for which her mother fought or teenage Pakistani activist Humaira Bachal telling the story of her mother chopping wood to pay her school fees, one thing was clear: if it weren’t for the influence and sacrifice of their mothers, these leaders would not be on stage sharing their stories.
From a personal standpoint, hearing these women speak so passionately about their mothers made me acknowledge the importance of my own mother in my life. But from a humanitarian standpoint, this recognition spoke volumes about an ongoing tragedy still occurring in many parts of the world – maternal mortality.
Most people don’t know this, but every two minutes, somewhere in the world, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. This woman – this often young, often poor, often South Asian or African woman – succumbs to complications that are almost entirely preventable. It’s hard to imagine that this is still such a challenging issue in today’s day and age.
The ripple effects of maternal mortality are perhaps even more jarring. From an economic standpoint, maternal mortality costs the world approximately $15 billion in lost productivity each year. As the advocacy organization Women Deliver notes, women operate the majority of small businesses and farms in the developing world, and even their unpaid labor like household work accounts for a third of the world’s GDP. But what strikes me the most is the fact that when a mother dies, her children are 10 times more likely to leave school, suffer poor health or die prematurely. That means that every two minutes, another child loses the driving force that could propel her to become tomorrow’s Malala Yousafzai.
As Hillary Clinton urged in her remarks, “We need to…do more to save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of mothers who die every year during childbirth.” I could not agree more. If Women in the World accomplished one thing, I hope it planted the seeds of momentum to render issues like maternal mortality obsolete, so when the next generation of female leaders blossoms, it will have to search far and wide to come up with topics to discuss at this conference.