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SPEECH BY THE UNFPA EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, DR. BABATUNDE OSOTIMEHIN AT THE HIGH LEVEL RELIGIOUS LEADERS MEETING FAITH FOR LIFE: ENDING PREVENTABLE MATERNAL DEATHS IN KENYA

23 December 2015

Your Excellency - Mr. President,

Your Excellency – First Lady Margaret Kenyatta,

Regional Coordinator Nairobi Area

Council of Governors (Governors here present)

Cabinet Secretary for Health – Honourable James Macharia

Principal Secretary for Health (Dr. Khadijah Kassachoon)

UN Resident Coordinator – my sister – Nardos Bekele-Thomas

Chairman of the Inter-religious Council of Kenya & Secr. General SUPKEM

Other distinguished Religious Leaders here present

Senior Government Officials

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen.

Good morning!  (Habari za Asibuhi) (Salama Alakum) 

I am also extremely pleased and humbled that I will be able to witness this very special occasion where the distinguished high level religious leadership of Kenya, rededicate to ending preventable maternal deaths –

(and Your Excellency, Mr President, it is an honour to yet again, be in your presence as you show your commitment to social justice and take action to ensure the well-being and prosperity of the women and young people of Kenya). 

We can see that Kenya means business. 

And indeed I feel blessed. 

Your Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen.

“Childbirth should be a happy moment for families and communities -- a cause for thanksgiving, praise and celebration. Sadly, too often it becomes a period of loss, grief and suffering because too many women and newborn babies are dying unnecessarily.

In this country, as you have heard, over 5,500 mothers lose their lives every year, 15 every day, as a result of complications of pregnancy and childbirth –complications that for the most part, are preventable.

It is a statistic that is hard to comprehend. Indeed the numbers represents for us a family member, a mother, a sister, a daughter, a member of a congregation, a human life. 

The numbers must also be for us a repeated call to urgent action; a repeated tug on our social and moral conscience, to do more and to do more immediately.

And particularly because we know what we need to do to improve women’s health:

Firstly, it is about choices.

·       Science has shown that when we empower women and couples to make informed choices, including the choice to plan the number, optimal timing and appropriate spacing of their children and to prevent unplanned pregnancies – women thrive. And when women thrive, families benefit.

Secondly, it is about Investment.

·      When we invest in strengthening the health system from the community to the facility; when we invest in strong referral systems and complementary basic services – like water, light/power and roads; when we invest in building the capacities of health workers with midwifery skills; in ensuring access to life-saving maternal health medicines and supplies; in quality and focused antenatal and postnatal care; and in basic and comprehensive emergency obstetric care – we save women’s lives. 

And third, it is about Prevention.

·      When we prevent violence against women and girls; prevent gender inequality; prevent forced child marriages and the consequent early child bearing; prevent female genital mutilation; prevent HIV and other sexually transmitted infections; and prevent discrimination against women and girls, we guarantee strong families and communities. Gender-based discrimination must end.

Research has also shown that the adolescent girl aged 10 to 19 years is two to three times more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than an older woman, yet they face grave barriers to life-saving sexual and reproductive health information, education and services because societies deny them access.

One thing that I know is common to almost all faiths and religions is that they are for the dignity and well-being of their people -- men and women, boys and girls, alike.

The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) supported by our development partners recognize the critical role played by leaders of faith and religion, both in ensuring the well-being of people and as indispensable and powerful change agents in addressing societal and cultural matters.

We are gathered here today because we know that communities globally have strong faith and a tendency to follow the teachings, guidance and attitudes of religious leaders and entities.

We know that your access to and deep understanding of your communities, and your credibility with them, has and continues to bring about significant change in reducing the numbers of women and girls dying from pregnancy and childbirth.  

Globally, we recognise that on average 30-40 per cent of basic health care is provided by faith based organisations. Many religious organisations have long-standing health service institutions, particularly those serving hard-to-reach rural communities.   

In recognition of the critical role played by religious leaders and faith-based organizations, the United Nations has created various platforms for dialogue on development issues.

The United Nations Inter-Agency Task Force on Engaging Faith-based Organizations for Development, formed in 2009 by the United Nations Development Group at the invitation and chairmanship of UNFPA, regularly hosts strategic consultations and learning exchanges between UN agencies, faith-based organizations, academia and think-tanks around issues common to development and religion. (The purpose of these efforts is for all United Nations agencies to work together to support your aspiration of ensuring the well-being of your people). 

And this is why in Kenya under the dynamic leadership of the Resident Coordinator – Nardos Beleke-Thomas, we as the UN family are committed to this partnership.

As UNFPA, we can proudly report the work we have done with religious leaders and diverse faith-based organizations both globally, regionally and here in Kenya. The benefits of this partnership and collaboration are evident. Let me give just two examples:

·      UNFPA has specifically engaged Muslim leaders to de-link Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) from Islam and clearly demonstrate that FGM has no place in any religion; and

·      Our partnership with religious leaders is also working to demystify myths and misconceptions around family planning.

(As a result, voluntary family planning is increasingly being prioritized in national policies, plans and programmes, and more developing countries are allocating more resources for modern contraceptives. This has benefits for both people and their societies).

Last October, in the East and Southern Africa region, including Kenya, UNFPA mobilized 13 countries in an ongoing breakthrough dialogue and provided based on requests capacity building. We have strengthened interfaith commitments to support UNFPA’s work on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights in the context of the review of the International Conference on Population and Development framework and the Post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

At UNFPA, we recognize that saving women’s lives during pregnancy, delivery and after delivery is not confined to medical interventions; it involves developing a deep understanding of social and cultural values, attitudes and behaviours. Some of these can be discriminatory towards girls and women, limiting their access to information and services.

Transforming these attitudes and behaviours requires working not only with women, but also with others in the community, particularly faith-based leaders, to demonstrate the benefits of investing in women’s health and young people, particularly adolescent girls.

Our work together over the years has benefited significantly from your insights and your interventions, and we welcome your continued guidance as to how we can work more effectively and efficiently with you, and the communities and organizations that you lead.

I wish to congratulate the Government and the Governors on the 15 County Initiative that in complement with the First Lady’s Beyond Zero campaign, has become a hallmark of Kenya’s commitment to eliminating preventable maternal deaths.  Indeed the 15 County Initiative will set an enviable gold standard for accelerated MDG efforts in the race towards the September 2015 MDGs and the transition to the SDGs.  With around 200 days left to the MDG target date, 181,000 out of the 289,000 women who die annually from pregnancy related causes are African mothers. Only six African countries are on track to achieve the MDG 5 goal of improving maternal health.

We will continue to support your efforts to enlighten your communities about the importance of maternal health services. And we stand by you as you spread the message of compassion and grace that underlines all religious beliefs and affirms the dignity and human rights of every individual.

We need your wisdom, your passion and your support as we work to ensure that every birth is safe, every pregnancy is wanted and every young person’s potential is fulfilled.”

Finally, your Excellency, this is too important an opportunity for me not to add a few words as an African mother and sister of faith.

In the course of my public health career and as a UN civil servant it has been my vocation to better young people’s lives and especially young girls.

I have met 10 year old girls who struggle with the chronic pain and complications of Female Genital Mutilation.

I have met 14 year old girls who are not in school but are in marriage because society has prematurely made them “child wives.”  Globally, one in nine girls in low and middle income countries will be married before they are 15 years. And the consequence of our inaction today will translate into 40,000 girls married each day.

I have listened to very emotional yet hopeful testimonies of courageous and determined 16 year old girls, deprived of education because of poverty and we know that depriving a girl of education passes poverty from one generation to the next.

I have comforted and educated my 18 year old daughter and her friends on the risks of unprotected sex, HIV and teenage pregnancy, when they think that the only way to show ones love for their boyfriend is by having sex. 

I have watched 19 year old girls suffer from the pain and stigma of obstetric fistulae because they simply were too young to be having their first child.

And I have smiled proudly, when I hear a 24 year old graduate who has become an entrepreuners and is running her own business and being a strong voice in her community for social change.

Kenya with Ireland presently co-chair an important open working group (OWG) process to define the SDGs.

It would be an honour and pride if Kenya can place on the SDGs the matters of that 10 year old girl, the needs and potentials of all young people, so that 15 years from now when we assess the progress of the SDGs, young people are in a place of prosperity and the world will remember that it was Kenya that fought for this.

Africa is blessed with a demographic bonus, a youthful population and therefore as we forge the next global SD agenda for a post 2015 world, young people must be front and center of this agenda.  It is that urgent. It is that important

(When girls are empowered to stay in school, avoid being forcefully married and pregnant early and gain critical life skills they can build a foundation for a better life for themselves and their nations.

And when boys and young men are brought back and made to be true men of honour, socialized in ways that ensure they appreciate and place women on an equal footing, we will indeed see progress.)

We need the contribution of all our daughters, sons, granddaughters and grandsons for the continents prosperity. With the leadership of Kenya including its faith based leaders, let us make it possible.

I thank you.