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Standing Up for Women’s Health on Human Rights Day

By Dr. Molly Fitzgerald
Women health in Nepal

Each year on December 10, the global community celebrates Human Rights Day. 

The United Nations General Assembly first declared this day to mark the anniversary of the 1948 adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Certified as the “most universal document in the world,” the UDHR asserts the “inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice, and peace in the world.” Nelson Mandela, one of the most well-known human rights champions of the 20th century, underscored the profound importance of human rights, urging that “to deny people their human rights is to challenge their very humanity.”

The principles and imperatives set forth in the UDHR apply to all without distinction concerning race, sex, language, or religion. The UDHR also includes specific entitlements around motherhood and childhood as critical development stages that are fundamental to health and human survival. Unfortunately, the rights and entitlements are far from universally realized or protected for many women around the world. 

This year’s Human Rights Day theme calls on all of us to “stand up for someone’s rights.” I am standing up for women’s right to health.  

Globally, approximately 830 women die each day from preventable causes that are associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Most maternal deaths occur in developing countries with a disproportionate burden on women in rural areas. Poor access to information and preventive health services such as family planning magnify the likelihood of unintended pregnancies. As a result, adolescent girls face even greater risks of complication and death due to pregnancy. In countries such as Nepal, maternal mortality remains unacceptably high at 258 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births (compared to 14 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in the U.S. or nine per 100,000 live births in the United Kingdom). While these deaths represent a declining trend in Nepal, women with the poorest access to health services continue to experience the greatest burden. 

Recognizing these risks and the need to stand up for the rights of the most disadvantaged populations, Plan International works closely with ministries around the world to improve the health and rights of women and children. In one program funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Nepal, Plan implements an innovative and effective approach to reducing maternal and newborn deaths in 15 districts throughout the country. The Pregnant Women’s Groups (PWG) approach emphasizes the power of women as peers to advocate for their own health rights and the rights of their peers to access timely, quality health services during pregnancy and delivery. Led by Female Community Health Volunteers, PWG meetings offer an opportunity for pregnant women to access lifesaving health information for themselves and their newborn children. 

During the sessions the pregnant women self-monitor and provide support and encouragement to implement key health behaviors, including seeking out health facility-based deliveries. Women jointly participate in the monitoring of their progress by applying colorful stickers against completion of each of 10 health promoting activities such as antenatal, delivery, and postnatal check-ups at a health facility, receipt of vaccinations, nutritional supplements, family planning counseling, and newborn care immediately following delivery. The program recognizes the importance of men as key partners and advocates for the rights and health of women, including mothers. 

Plan’s work to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality in Nepal and globally reflects the recognition that health and human rights go hand in hand. Fulfilling the rights enshrined in the UDHR means ensuring that everyone, mothers and newborns included, has an equal right to healthy, full lives.  

This year’s Human Rights Day theme offers a good reminder about the importance of standing up for the rights of those whose voices may need to be amplified. For me, standing up for women’s human rights, especially the right to timely, quality health information and services, amplifies not only the voices of mothers, but of children and future generations to come. Who are you standing up for?

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