Bill Richardson

Bill Richardson completed two terms as Governor of New Mexico. During his 15 years as a congressman there, he was a special envoy on many sensitive international missions in North Korea, Iraq, Cuba and Sudan. He served as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Secretary of the U.S. Department of Energy, and has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize. Richardson sought the Democratic nomination for President of the United States in 2008.

The rebel leader’s name was Kerubino Kwanyin Bol, and he wanted $2.5 million in ransom for the three Red Cross workers he had held for 38 days. It was 1996 and I was a member of Congress in the Sudan as a special U.S. envoy to try to negotiate the hostages’ release.

Women’s health and rights are central to the questions of human development and world economic growth that concern us all. To me they are moral and human questions, not political ones…

Bol’s camp was a desperate place. Without doctors or medicines or clean water, and with constant tension and episodes of violence, more than 450 children and dozens of women and men had died in recent weeks. Kerubino’s own infant daughter had succumbed to measles a few days earlier.

I asked him where his wife was and he didn’t answer. I said I can get you some medicines and some food if you turn over those hostages, and he looked away. Soon we agreed: he released the workers in return for medicines, a health survey, five tons of rice, some radios and a jeep.

At another grim camp in the Republic of Congo in 1998, when I was the United Nations ambassador, a doctor handed me an emaciated baby whose mother was a refugee from the fighting. As I cradled the little boy and tried to brush away the flies, the mother told me she had been working as a prostitute to feed herself and two children. She said she had no money, no job and no hope. At that moment the baby made a few little sounds and was suddenly very still. He died in my arms.

These are experiences one does not forget.

Ever since, I have understood at a gut level the critical importance of basic comprehensive health care for women and children. Without it, a society disintegrates – and conflict situations bring the need to desperate levels. This is true whether the society is a desolate desert camp or a nation-state.

Eight hundred women die every day around the world, many in conflict or post-conflict zones, from complications of pregnancy and childbirth that are mostly preventable. In 2012, some 6.6 million children under five died from causes that we deal with routinely in the United States. These are not just numbers; they are permanent scars of anguish and heartbreak. They are an unacceptable loss.

The health needs of women and children, especially those in conflict situations, are critical to global development and security. Without freedom from violence, equal access to education, legal rights and social opportunities, women and their children can’t achieve their enormous potential to transform and energize their communities. These needs also include access to family planning and comprehensive reproductive health care, which are fundamental to a woman’s autonomy and wellbeing throughout her life.

I left public service after serving two terms as governor of New Mexico, but am still involved in global issues as a writer, consultant and adviser, and I try to bring in women’s needs wherever possible. It’s clear to me that the issues surrounding women’s health and rights are central to the questions of human development and world economic growth that concern us all. To me they are moral and human questions, not political ones, and I try to discuss them in those terms. It’s the kind of language even a rebel leader can understand.