The Women Deliver conference opens Tuesday (5/280) in the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur. Organizers call it the largest global meeting of the decade on the health and well-being of women and girls.
About 7,000 people have gathered for Women Deliver, including government and business leaders, policymakers and NGO representatives.
Felecia Wong is senior advisor for Asia and Eastern Europe for the International HIV/AIDS Alliance. She says sexual and reproductive health and rights of women and girls must be a priority.
“If a young women or a young girl cannot access information about family planning, it’s often also most likely that they won’t be able to access information about HIV, which puts them at higher risk for unintended pregnancy, as well as getting HIV because they’re both sexually transmitted,” she said.
Serra Sippel, President of the Center for Health and Gender Equality, agreed.
“We still have unacceptably high rates of maternal mortality – over 300,000 a year. And we have an unmet need for contraception. Over 200 million women are without contraception, who need it and who want it,” she said.
Sippel said that a lack of access has wide-ranging consequences.
“Not having access to family planning – not having access to really basic health care, in general, for women – means that you’re not able to space your children, which would mean that you’re at high risk for a difficult pregnancy and possible death through child birth. And also the children, you need to space children so that they grow up and can be healthy,” she said.
Felicia Wong said that more than 30 years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic the disease still hits women hard.
“For women of reproductive age, HIV is still the leading cause of death, and HIV-related mortality accounts for one-fifth of all maternal deaths. And globally, young women between the ages of 15 and 24 have higher infection rates, which are as much as twice as high as young men their same age group.”
The International HIV/AIDS Alliance and other groups are launching the Link Up program.
Wong said, “Link Up is an ambitious five country program with activities in Burundi, Ethiopia, Uganda, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The aim of that project is to improve the sexual and reproductive health of young people between the ages of 10 and 24 -- and to address in addition to their health needs their rights to access.”
Serra Sippel of the Center for Health and Gender Equality said the conference host country has made gains.
“I think it’s significant that the Women Deliver conference taking place in Malaysia is an example of where we can look at progress, in terms of a country where the maternal mortality rates have gone down – that women do have access to contraception – and the country is thriving economically, that families are thriving,” she said.
However, both Sippel and Wong said the United Nations Millennium Development Goals on health have not been fully met. The MDGs come due in 2015. They said that plans should be made now to ensure women’s health and reproductive rights after that date.
The Women Deliver conference runs until May 30th.