Fighting Maternal Mortality, Backing Down Somewhat On Afghan Women

Yesterday, Hillary Clinton announced the Saving Lives At Birth Grand Challenge a joint initiative on maternal health with USAID and the Gates foundation. Kind of awkward about USAID recently backing off women's rights provisions in Afghanistan, a major Clinton priority, with the regional director telling The Washington Post, "The women's issue is one where we need hardheaded realism...But if we become unrealistic and overfocused . . . we get ourselves in trouble."

The focus of Saving Lives At Birth is on technological innovation to improve maternal health and infant mortality. Clinton said at the announcement yesterday,

We're calling on the inventors and innovators, creative thinkers, whoever they are and whatever their expertise, to help us get beyond the barriers. Now, we're not interested in technology for its own sake. We will target our funding toward advances that can work in the developing world. They have to be affordable, sustainable, and scalable in even the most remote villages. It might be a way to use cell phones to keep mothers up to date on the best ways to care for their babies and themselves, or a new method for recruiting, training, and paying community health workers, or a new system for identifying pregnant women with severe complications and creating a transportation network to take them to a clinic or hospital. We're looking for dramatic impact that could increase access to healthcare for women and newborns by at least 50 percent.

Given the depressing facts — a woman dying in childbirth every two minutes, Sub-Saharan women being 136 times more likely to die than in development countries — this issue never stops being relevant. It's also less controversial than say, the gradual removal of ambitious goals to ensure land rights and government program inclusion for women in Afghanistan, reported on in The Washington Post Sunday:

The removal of specific women's rights requirements, which also took place in a $600 million municipal government program awarded last year, reflects a shift in USAID's approach in Afghanistan. Instead of setting ambitious goals to improve the status of Afghan women, the agency is tilting toward more attainable measures.

"If you're targeting an issue, you need to target it in a way you can achieve those objectives," said J. Alexander Their, director of USAID's Office of Afghanistan and Pakistan Affairs.

Clinton said in February that the U.S> wouldn't "support a political process that undoes the social progress that has been made in the past decade" for Afghan women. But there's that "hardheaded realism" to contend with, particularly with the domestic American desire to get out of Afghanistan. An unnamed official told The Post, "Nobody wants to abandon the women of Afghanistan, but most Americans don't want to keep fighting there for years and years. The grim reality is that, despite all of the talk about promoting women's rights, things are going to have to give."

On maternal health and infant mortality yesterday, Clinton was, perhaps, obliquely referring to the fact that women's rights have occasionally had to take a back seat, although she used the more expansive phrase "global health": "Now, you may have noticed there's a lot going on in the world right now, and you don't exactly see global health leading the nightly news. But it should be, because improving the health of people around the world isn't separate or distinct from our foreign policy goals." She's said similar things about women's rights generally, but some battles are simpler to fight than others.

In Afghanistan, U.S. Shifts Strategy On Women's Rights As It Eyes Wider Priorities [WP]
Saving Lives At Birth [Official Site]
Earlier: How Hillary Clinton Sells Her Women's Rights Agenda