This week is the 2010 Global Maternal Health Conference in Delhi. Hosted by the Maternal Health Task Force at Engender Health and the The Public Health Foundation of India, the conference brings together policymakers from all over the world to focus on decreasing maternal mortality rates in the developing world by using public advocacy to inspire public will.
As the first session got under way, panelist Gita Sen, Professor of Public Policy at the India Institute of Management drew attention to some jarring news. Sen held up an article from the Hindustan Times, a report on a pregnant woman who died after giving birth in a busy market, mere miles away from where the conference was being held.
The story is unfortunately familiar to too many women around the world and reiterates the gravity of the issue at hand. However, as I sat at my desk at the UN and watched a live streaming of the conference I was struck by the fact that more and more, advocacy groups are coming together to focus on how to use social media to spread information about a cause as opposed to the cause itself.
The question is one that needs careful consideration, especially as the mediums to generate grassroots support expand every day. In the digital age, everything from Facebook to LinkedIn presents an opportunity to promote a cause and it seems that nearly every .org must also have a Twitter account. But for the women in developing countries, this issue is more than the latest fad in global health—it is their lives.
The conference is the latest event to highlight maternal mortality, the fifth Millennium Development Goal. This Goal has received a big boost of publicity in the build up to the September MDG Summit, with everyone from the Secretary-General to filmmakers; even supermodels are getting involved. However, the challenge of translating awareness into political will still presents an obstacle for NGOs and others hoping to push governments to prioritize the problem.
Big names, trendy topics, and webcasts create more public awareness regarding maternal mortality. But will this cause donors and governments to move from pledges to commitments? Does social media have the potential to not just identify the nameless women of the world but also improve their lives?