Last week I was in the audience to listen to a debate looking at the crisis facing women and girls around the world. It was a fabulous panel with Melinda Gates of the Gates Foundation, Secretary of State for International Development Justine Greening, award winning Nigerian midwife Catherine Ojo and Director General of the International Planned Parenthood Federation Tewodros Melesse all moderated by the unflappable (and often very funny) Natasha Kaplinsky.

The debate focussed on family planning, the high rates of maternal and newborn mortality, female genital mutilation and forced child marriage and on what needs to be done to make 2014 the year where we begin to see real change for women and children and, through that change, to whole communities.

I was very keen to ask a question as were most of the 240 strong audience which was made up of health professionals, charity workers, media and a small handful of bloggers including me, Jen Howze and Merry Raymond. With my recent posts calling for an end to 1 million first day newborn deaths still fresh in my mind I raised my hand and asked Justine Greening:

Justine Greening and Tewodros Melesse

‘Can the Secretary of State tell us whether she plans to attend the upcoming Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health meeting and how the UK government will be making commitments in support of the Every Newborn Action Plan, specifically to ensure that every woman has access to a life-saving midwife when they give birth? As a parent blogger working closely with the parent blogging community this is very important to me, my readers and to the wider parent blogging community’

Justine Greening confirmed the UK government’s commitment to the Every Newborn Action Plan itself but I was disappointed to hear that she herself will not be attending the meeting and that she didn’t say what the UK will actually do to help increase midwife numbers or enable birth attendance. She did, however, nod along when Melinda Gates, a hugely influential voice in this debate, emphasised the critical role of health workers and told us that in 20 years we should be looking to see all countries having the same maternal care as the UK and the same newborn survival rate – you can’t argue with that one really can you?

Melinda Gates and Justine Greening

How is it fair that by sheer chance of location, whereabouts it was born, one baby gets top-notch care and another doesn’t? That one baby lives and another one dies because of a lack of basic care? (I know there are issues with our own maternal health care system but we do have a health care system which is free at the point of contact and which works pretty well most of the time)

Catherine Ojo was incredibly inspiring as she called for action and for midwives for all. She had so many stories to tell and her passion for her job filled the room.

Catherine Ojo

I was delighted to have the opportunity to sit down with her, Jen and Merry after the event and chat over a cup of tea. She told us not only how a trained midwife can be the difference between life and death but how they can help with family planning and give people the chance to give birth through ‘choice not chance’, how they work to change harmful cultural traditions (like FGM) within communities and how they can be at the heart of a community offering so much more than maternal care. It is no wonder that she was presented with Save the Children’s EVERY ONE Campaign Midwife Award in 2011, she’s fab. Here she is with the very lovely Merry from Patch of Puddles.

Merry Raymond and Catherine Ojo

I came away from the debate and my meeting with Catherine optimistic that change can happen, that it is possible and achievable but only if we can keep the pressure on our politicians, only if we keep stressing the importance of midwives and health workers for all, only if we keep standing up and saying ‘No, this isn’t acceptable – 1 million babies should not be dying on their first day of life – do something about it’

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