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FantinoChildren around the world are capable of great things, but in order to achieve, they must have enough of the basics: food, water and healthcare. With these foundations, and the opportunities to learn, all boys and girls can become contributing members of their families and communities.

Many of us have witnessed in person the struggles that women and their children confront every day in the developing world. Whether it is access to clean water, having a nutritious meal, or obtaining medication to treat an illness, these basic necessities still remain out of reach for many today. I witnessed this recently when I had the opportunity to travel to the Sahel region of West Africa and Nigeria. I saw first-hand Canada's efforts to train community health workers, support health facilities, and bring health services to underserved rural communities. As in many parts of the world, multiple barriers impede the delivery of basic healthcare in Africa.

Strengthening health systems, reducing the burden of disease, and improving access to nutritious food and essential micronutrients are all ways in which Canada is contributing towards these goals.

In June 2010, under the leadership of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, G8 leaders endorsed the Muskoka Initiative on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health, aiming to save the lives of women and children in developing countries.

Canada made a substantial commitment to women's and children's health, pledging to provide, from 2010 to 2015, $1.1 billion in addition to the $1.75 billion we had already committed. Other nations and like-minded partners joined the initiative, and together committed US$7.3 billion in new funding over five years.

Later in the same year, the United Nations created the UN Secretary General's Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health, with the core goal of improving the lives of women and children. Recognizing Canada's leadership for accountability, the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked Prime Minister Stephen Harper to co-chair, with President Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania, the United Nations Commission on Information and Accountability for Women's and Children's Health. The Commission set out ten action-oriented recommendations to ensure that every dollar, every initiative, and every activity achieve concrete results. The recommendations are based on an accountability framework revolving around a cycle of monitoring, action, and review, leading to continuous improvement and ongoing learning. Focusing on these steps will help ensure that our efforts make a real difference in the lives of women and children in developing countries.

In addition, the Commission recommended the creation of an independent Expert Review Group, which will release its inaugural report in September this year. I look forward to reviewing the progress made on the Commission's recommendations as they are being implemented, and where we need to pay greater attention to speed up progress.

As Canada's Minister of International Cooperation, I am often reminded of just how important Maternal, Newborn, and Child Health is to reducing poverty in developing countries.

I am pleased to say that Canada is on track to fully implement our entire $2.85 billion contribution. But this initiative isn't just about the money. We also made a commitment to mothers and children: We will reduce the level of unnecessary maternal and child related deaths. In cooperation with country governments, multilateral and global institutions, and civil society we are doing just that.

Canada's Muskoka Initiative focuses on countries with high maternal and child mortality; almost $800 million is being invested in 26 countries in Africa, the Americas and Asia.

In Ethiopia and Zimbabwe, in partnership with CARE Canada, more than 4,500 pregnant and lactating mothers, and more than 9,000 children under the age of five, have benefitted from improved nutrition and access to health services, including antenatal clinics.

Canadian partners in Haiti like Save the Children Canada and International Child Care Canada are delivering quality primary health care services to thousands of women and children who would otherwise not have access. We have seen an increase in immunization rates for measles and rubella from 44 per cent to 66 per cent in 2011. For polio, vaccination rates have increased to 78 per cent in 2011. By ensuring children grow up strong and healthy, we can see more participation in education. A healthy start to life is key to providing the necessary tools for children to learn and grow.

These projects are among thousands that Canada and the more than 200 partners aligned with the UN Secretary-General's Global Strategy for Women's and Children's Health are undertaking to address the high mortality rates and poor health of women and children in developing countries. The international development community has gathered momentum and commitment to a remarkable degree, and I am very pleased that Canada plays a leadership role in this international effort.

Many countries are making significant progress through a renewed focus on women and children. Bangladesh, Nepal and Rwanda reduced neonatal mortality by more than 30 percent over the last decade, and are now providing models of improving newborn survival through their use of innovative approaches.

Countries such as Tanzania, Malawi, and Cambodia have reduced maternal mortality rates by as much as 70 percent because they concentrated their efforts on helping women during pregnancy and immediately following childbirth. Throughout Africa, community health workers, including midwives, are being trained to provide a wider range of services, so that they are capable of providing more life-saving help to women and newborns.

These development results and partnerships are encouraging, but at the same time, we continue to face serious obstacles. Nearly four million newborns will die this year in their first 28 days, half in their first day of life. They will die from simple infections like sepsis and pneumonia, pre-term birth and breathing complications. Moreover, one-third of all child deaths are related to under-nutrition, making improved nutrition a critical factor in child survival.

Canada is helping to reduce the burden of illness and disease through the GAVI Alliance, as part of a collective effort to expand immunization coverage in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, where five million deaths have been prevented since 2000 through this project.

The world is increasingly aware of how important nutrition is to the health of mothers and children, since without nutritious food and supplements, young minds and bodies cannot grow. Building on nearly 20 years of active leadership, Canada is contributing to programs that reach children in their critical early years with vitamins and minerals, one of the most effective, proven ways to give children a good start in life. Right now, I believe that we have an unprecedented opportunity through the Scaling-Up Nutrition (SUN) Movement to align our efforts and to reach more mothers and children with nutritional supplements and higher-quality food.

If we are to achieve the goals of the G-8 Muskoka Initiative, the Global Strategy, and the Commission, we must press ahead and be unwavering in our commitment to women's and children's health as a priority. This is only possible if all partners meet their commitments.

In order to meet our goals, we must also share our knowledge and best practices. The Canadian Network for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (MNCH) was established in 2010, co-chaired by Dr. Dorothy Shaw, of the British Columbia Women's Hospital & Health Centre, and Rosemary McCarney, President and CEO of Plan Canada. The Network aims to coordinate data collection through monitoring and reporting on health indicators, allowing groups and partners to compare and assess progress made in saving the lives of women and children. The Network will also identify existing and new opportunities in MNCH investments and projects that will better integrate health prevention, promotion and healthcare in developing countries, and disseminate new evidence and knowledge regarding innovations that can enhance progress.

Canada remains fully committed to improving women's and children's health, and to advancing the work undertaken through these initiatives. Money alone, though, will not resolve all the issues or challenges. All of us who are partners in this fight to improve the health of women and children must keep a resolute focus on this need to turn our commitments into actions as we move ahead. We must ensure that our actions will lead to long-term, meaningful results. We must also acknowledge that these results can only be achieved on the foundation of respect for human rights, a point Prime Minister Stephen Harper and my colleague John Baird, the Canadian Foreign Minister, have underlined by making the rights of women a central part of Canada's foreign policy priorities. Our success as leaders in development will be judged in large part on the lasting difference we make together in the lives of women and children. GHD