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South Africa

Parliamentarians lead change for mothers and children

UNICEF Image: Countdown to 2015: Parliamentarians
© UNICEF/HQ06-2807/Khemka
A mother with her newborn twin boys at a primary health centre in Dholpur District, Rajasthan State, India.

By Genine Babakian

CAPE TOWN, South Africa, 18 April 2008 – Parliamentarians from all over the world showed their support this week as more than 200 Members of Parliament gathered in Cape Town for the 118th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and a joint UNICEF-IPU panel on maternal, newborn and child health.

“Care for mothers, newborns and children is at the heart of human progress and a country’s well-being,” said President of the Pan-African Parliament and keynote speaker Dr. Gertrude Mongella. “We are 44,098 parliamentarians globally. Can’t we do something individually and collectively that can change the lives of mothers and children? We have the power. We have the voice. Do we have the courage?”

Recent years have seen some progress in child and maternal health, particularly in areas of disease prevention. Dr. Mongella cited an example in her own country, Tanzania, where immunization coverage rates have jumped from 40 to 80 per cent in the past two years.

UNICEF Image: Countdown to 2015: Parliamentarians
© WHO/2008/Pirozzi
Inter-Parliamentary Union Secretary-General Anders Johnsson at a press conference on the 'Countdown to 2015' report released during the IPU assembly in South Africa.

Strong political commitment

Knowledge and resources are there to combat child and maternal mortality, but political commitment needs to be strong if the world is to achieve the Millennium Development Goals for child and maternal health.

“We are failing MDGs 4 and 5,” said Dr. Mongella. “Is this not an issue for which to hold parliaments accountable?”

Progress towards MDGs 4 and 5 – and the status of child and maternal health – were the specific focus of ‘Countdown to 2015’, a collaborative report, released at the IPU assembly, focusing on the health status of mothers and children in the 68 countries that account for 97 per cent of all child and maternal deaths.

UNICEF Image: Countdown to 2015: Parliamentarians
© WHO/2008/Pirozzi
UNICEF Representative in South Africa Macharia Kamau addresses the IPU assembly on MDG progress.

Need for stronger health systems

The report cites the need to strengthen national health systems and provide a continuum of care for mothers, newborns and children at all of the critical stages of life.

“What you can do as parliamentarians is create a supportive environment for maternal, newborn and child survival,” said UNICEF Chief of Health Peter Salama.

“MPs need to get involved when it comes to achieving MDGs 4 and 5,” said IPU Secretary-General Anders Johnsson at the launch of the ‘Countdown’ report, referring, in particular, to representatives of the 68 priority countries. “By launching the ‘Countdown’ report here at the IPU assembly we expect to gain awareness on their behalf and a commitment to go back to their countries to see what they can do to get things right,” he said.

Pushing back poverty

The theme of this year’s IPU assembly is pushing back the frontiers of poverty.

“Eighteen years ago, the IPU and UNICEF partnership was significant in making the Convention on Child Rights the most rapidly ratified international convention in history,” said the head of the UNICEF delegation, Philip O’Brien. “Since then, the power of the parliamentary lobby has been instrumental in ensuring national commitment to international standards.”

Child and maternal health, and its link to combating poverty, has received attention throughout the week at the IPU meeting, which opened with an address by South African President Thabo Mbeki welcoming 1,200 participants from some 140 countries.

“Investing in health of women and children is not only an investment in human rights, but a sound economic decision,” said Dr. Mongella.





16 April 2008:
Many of the delegates to the 118th assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union visited UNICEF-sponsored projects in the Cape Town area.
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Members of Parliament reflect on their experiences during the IPU assembly in South Africa.
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