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Millionth birthing kit celebration breakfast 2012

News, speeches and media

Keynote address


Speaker: Penny Williams, Australia's Global Ambassador for Women, E&OE


Before I begin, I wish to acknowledge the Kaurna people - the Traditional Owners of the land on which we are meeting on today, and pay my respects to the Elders, past and present.

Your Excellency Rear Admiral Kevin Scarce, Governor of South Australia and Mrs Liz Scarce

Dr Luc Masururu, Medical Director of the Mission in Health Care and Development in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Jenny Weaver, chair, Birthing Kit Foundation

Members of Zonta International and the Birthing Kit Foundation

I am delighted to have been invited to speak at this important celebration

AWG position

It is almost a year to the day since my appointment as Australia's Global Ambassador for Women and Girls.

The Government's creation of position speaks volume about importance of women in Australia's foreign policy and development assistance and message we wish to send to world about status of women.

Close engagement with civil society in both Australia and overseas has been an important feature of the past year's work.

I have appreciated the opportunity to connect with organisations like Zonta since my appointment.

Maternal and child health is a foundation for my work.

So I am particularly pleased to be able to participate in the millionth birthing kit celebration today.

I know from my own experiences of talking to women when I travel the concerns these women have for their own health and for their daughters during pregnancy and childbirth, as well as that of their babies.

This concern is not surprising when you consider that, for example, mothers in Papua New Guinea are on average 80 times more likely to die in child birth than in Australia)

Birthing kits program

In Australia, in the experience of most people in this room, a birth is a time of great celebration. It's anticipated with excitement and, in most parts of our country, with the confidence that the highest level of healthcare is available to assist with a safe delivery.

But in some countries, the risk of death during childbirth is so high that families gather to say goodbye as the time of birth approaches.

WHO estimates 1000 women die every day in childbirth with 95 per cent occurring in poorest countries of Asia-Pacific and Africa.

Many deaths are due to infections which are preventable in a clean environment.

And for every death, it's estimated that 30 women contract infections for which they have no treatment.

Sometimes big problems have simple solutions.

That's been the premise behind Zonta's work since 1999 to provide clean birthing environments for women in developing countries.

For less than the cost of a cup of coffee, the six items necessary for a basic but clean birth can be provided to pregnant women: a piece of plastic, rubber gloves, gauze, soap, string and a scalpel blade.

And by last month, thanks to the efforts of Zonta who began this program in Australia, the Birthing Kit Foundation and affiliated volunteer groups across the country over 13 years, one million of these kits had been distributed.

Distributing about 140,000 kits each year to 22 countries, the Birthing Kit Foundation of Australia has grown to be the third largest distributor of birthing kits in the world after the UN agencies.

This is an extraordinary achievement, and one of which Zonta and the foundation can be incredibly proud.

Birthing kits play an important role in creating a clean and sterile environment for women to give birth.

But as we all know, the kits are just one component of what is needed to save the lives of mothers and their babies.

The Birthing Kit Foundation's work to provide specialist maternal and infant health courses to 9000 birth attendants to date has been another crucial element of support for women and children in developing countries.

The most effective way to prevent maternal and newborn deaths is for a skilled birth attendant (who has been medically trained) to be present at every birth - to prevent and manage life-threatening complications such as heavy bleeding, or refer women for emergency obstetric care if a delivery becomes complicated.

In developing countries, around 65 per cent of all deliveries were attended by skilled birth attendants in 2010 (up from 55 per cent in 1990).

But while the proportion of births attended by skilled birth attendants is slowly improving, in some countries within our region, numbers of skilled birth attendants remain alarmingly low - in Bangladesh, for example, around one quarter of births were attended by skilled birth attendants in 2010.

Antenatal care is also critical to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity.

In 2010, almost half of pregnant women in developing countries did not have the recommended minimum four antenatal appointments.

What Australia is doing

So one of Australia's key development priorities is to save the lives of women and children through greater access to quality maternal and child health services.

The Australian Government's aid agency, AusAID, will spend $1.6 billion on maternal and child health between 2010 and 2015.

This supports the global commitment made under the UN Secretary General's Global Strategy on Women's and Children's Health and will result in more than 1 million additional births being attended by a skilled birth attendant by 2015.

The allocation builds on major existing Australian programs of support in the Asia Pacific - a region which bears around 40 per cent of the global burden of maternal and child mortality.

It includes a commitment of $140 million from 2011-2015 for women's and children's health in eastern Africa.

Under this five-year Australia-Africa Maternal and Child Health Initiative, AusAID is working with partners in East Africa to strengthen health systems for improved maternal, neonatal and child health outcomes, support midwifery training, improve basic and emergency obstetric and newborn care, and expand access to family planning services.

As part of this program, Australia is providing $45 million over four years to support efforts to strengthen national health programs in Ethiopia.

On current projections, we expect that around $721 million will be spent on health programs in 2012‑13 (excluding water, sanitation and hygiene promotion) or 15 per cent of total ODA.

Australia's investment in health focuses on proven interventions that deliver strong results including:

    • expanding access to family planning and vaccination services
    • increasing access to health services for women and children
    • increasing the number of skilled health workers (including midwives)
    • treatment and prevention of common childhood illnesses

and supporting the development of country health systems.

Australia is providing support through multiple channels, with a focus on funding national health systems in Asia and the Pacific.

Our bilateral programs will be complemented by support to effective multilateral organisations, such as the GAVI Alliance, which offer financial and technical assistance to developing countries to improve health outcomes.

We will continue to support civil society, which has a critical role to play in demanding and delivering quality services.

There have been important recent achievements.

Australia's contribution to the GAVI Alliance is helping to immunise more than seven million children.

And in Bangladesh, where Australia is a major, contributor to maternal and child health initiatives, there has been a 40 per cent reduction in maternal deaths over the last decade.

Maternal mortality has fallen from 322 per 100 000 live births to 194 per 100 000 live births in 2010.

AusAID has been pleased to partner with the Birthing Kit Foundation to support your programs.

In 2011, AusAID provided $74,750 to the Birthing Kit Foundation to develop and manage the assembly and distribution of 30,000 clean birthing kits in three regions in Ethiopia.

This project has created valuable employment opportunities for vulnerable and marginalised women in those regions and is strengthening the capacity of local NGOs.

Knowing there is an unlimited development assistance agenda for Zonta and other volunteers to attend to, I encourage the Birthing Kit Foundation to continue to implement projects where the birthing kits are assembled in the countries where they will be used.

The two-fold benefit to local women – providing them with employment and assisting with their health needs – cannot be overstated.

As with all development endeavours, our work is a partnership.

It's a partnership between government and civil society, a partnership between business and community organisations, between NGOs in Australia, and between Australian community groups and their counterparts in countries around the globe, people such as Dr Luc Masururu and his colleagues at the Mission in Health Care and Development.

Perhaps most importantly, it's a partnership between individuals.

I am struck by how incredibly satisfying must have been the work of each volunteer involved in assembling those one million birthing kits so far distributed by the Birthing Kit Foundation.

Each kit, of course, not only contains physical items but also carries with it the hopes of the person who assembled it:

    • hopes that the woman who uses it will have a clean and safe birth
    • that her child will be born healthy and will thrive
    • and that the kit will support a time of rejoicing, a profound rite of passage.
    • All that for the cost of a cup of coffee.

Today we celebrate – the one million births that have been assisted so simply and yet so meaningfully by these kits.

We celebrate the difference that has been made to the lives of so many women and their children by reducing rates of infection at birth.

And we celebrate the women on each side of the kits – those who put them together and those who use them.

I congratulate Zonta, the Birthing Kit Foundation Australia and the many volunteers who have donated their time and money to such an important and effective program.

Last Updated: 10 December 2012
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