Helen Clark

Helen Clark, a New Zealand politician and administrator, served three terms as that country’s prime minister from 1999-2008, and is the first woman to head the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where she has served since 2009. Clark is also the chair of the United Nations Development Group, a committee consisting of heads of the UN funds, programs, and departments working on development issues. Before resigning from Parliament in April 2009, Clark was foreign affairs spokeswoman for New Zealand’s Labour Party and had been a member of Parliament for the Mount Albert electorate since 1981.

Throughout my life, women have been powerful, instructive, and inspirational. I am the eldest of four daughters, and we grew up on a farm in New Zealand, at Te Pahau in the Waikato region. My mother, Margaret, was a primary schoolteacher, and my father George ran the farm. My mother had a kind heart and an inquiring mind. Both of my parents loved visiting me at Premier House during my time as prime minister – they particularly loved watching “question time” and the pageantry of the official opening of Parliament.

Women’s reproductive health needs remain hugely underserved. Hundreds of thousands of women die every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

I have tried to emulate my mother in my own life, and to bring her kindness and intellectual  engagement to all I do, especially when I try to tackle difficult issues like family planning and reproductive health. Adequate sexual and reproductive health services are an absolutely basic human right. Yet it is one that so many do not enjoy. It is critical for promoting gender equality and empowerment. It is critical for achieving the Millennium  Development Goals (MDGs). And it is critical for development progress overall.

Having served as prime minister of my country for ten years, and as the first woman to lead the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), I believe that achieving  gender equality  is not only morally right, but also catalytic to development as a whole, creating political, economic, and social opportunities for women, which benefit individuals, communities, countries, and the world.

MDG progress, as it currently stands, is uneven, and it is still too slow to meet the 2015 target date of all the goals. In no area is that more apparent than on MDG 5 on maternal health. As long as more than 200 million women in the world have an unmet need for family planning, their chances of finishing their education, engaging in paid work, and breaking out of poverty are reduced. I believe that women  have the right to make their own decisions about whether and when to have children, how many to have, and with whom – and then to receive the support and care to give birth safely.

UNDP is mandated to promote the empowerment of women and incorporate gender perspectives and women’s participation into its programming. We cannot hope to reach the MDGs if 50 percent of the world’s people are not afforded equal rights and opportunities. Addressing the needs of women needs to be at the heart of the development agenda everywhere, and it is an issue that I keep at the forefront of my work.

Development progress is lagging where the needs and status of women and girls are given low priority. Women’s reproductive health needs remain hugely underserved. Hundreds of thousands of women die every year from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. Moreover, twenty-five years into the HIV/AIDS epidemic, gender inequality and unequal power relationships expose women to great risk. About half of all people living with HIV/AIDS globally are female. In sub-Saharan Africa, approximately 60 percent are female, and in some areas girls are 2 to 4.5 times more likely than boys to become infected. Investing in women and girls will be critical for achieving the goals.

Achieving real progress on maternal health requires a broad approach toward empowering women, and a greater investment in achieving gender equality.  Ensuring political and economic empowerment is crucial to speeding up development progress and improving women’s lives. A woman’s level of education impacts her economic and social empowerment, and her children’s nutrition and health. Meeting a woman’s need for sexual and reproductive services will increase her chances of finishing her education, and breaking out of poverty. I feel very fortunate that I have been able to do all that I’ve done with my life, and have not been limited by poor resources and no choices – as are so many women in the world.

The evidence is clear that there is a variety of proven ways to advance maternal health. Without question, meeting the current high level of unmet need for family planning services is high among them. A woman who can plan and space her family will enjoy better health and more choice over her life. The impact will be beneficial to her family, too.

This matters enormously to me as a woman and as a former health minister and prime minister. Making major progress on maternal health will require much more than isolated interventions; it requires a broader approach toward empowering women and greater investments in achieving gender equality. I think often of my own experience growing up and making my way out into the wider world – with the loving support of my parents who made sure I knew what choices I had, and who made sure I felt empowered. So many girls in the world have no idea what empowerment is, much less live their lives by it.

When women do have control over their health and sexuality, they’re better able to plan their futures and their pregnancies and are better able to protect themselves from HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections generally. It also gives them the opportunity to lift their own status and that of their family, their community, and their country. I owe my own opportunities to work and be of service to my country to the fact that I had choices, education, and empowerment. I know that when women’s basic needs for family planning go unmet, their chances of finishing their education, of being in productive work, or breaking out of poverty are sharply reduced.

Even with impressive development progress in many areas over the last decade, many people – especially women – have been left behind, experiencing a toxic mix of economic, social, and political exclusion. Yet those women, too, have dreams and aspirations, just as I did, growing up on that farm. Our dreams are not just for material progress, but also for the opportunity to realize our full potential, build a better future for the world’s children, and participate in shaping the decisions that impact their lives.

Those of us who have had the fortune to be able to access maternal health services have insights into what it would mean not to have been able to have that chance. And with that insight comes responsibility – a responsibility to speak for those who cannot give voice for themselves, to stand up for those who do not even know they are not fully standing. I hope I honor my mother and engage in this struggle with intelligence and compassion, and the courage to fight. To fight for reproductive health – a basic human right.