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Just 10 baht a day can save lives and boost economies

Would you save someone's life for 10 baht a day?

What if you could? What if you could reduce by two-thirds the number of women who die in childbirth each year? And reduce by one half the number of newborn babies who die each year? It's just 10 baht a day _ less than riding one stop on the skytrain.

This is what it would cost to save the lives of 3 million babies and almost 300,000 mothers each year. They live in Nepal and Laos, Congo and Mozambique, Bolivia and Haiti. They die because of a lack of medical services during pregnancy and childbirth, and they die because they did not have access to reliable methods of family planning. The mother may have been 15 years old, or 45. The pregnancy may have been one too many, to a mother malnourished, and without the means to decide for herself.

Here's the story of Saabira: She was 14 when she was married off in her village in southern Afghanistan, as part of a deal to pay off a debt.

She had her first child when she was 15. Three more of her babies then died soon after birth and then she had two miscarriages _ because your body simply isn't ready to have children when you are a child yourself.

By the time Saabira reached the age of 24 she was severely undernourished and anaemic, and by the time she reached hospital, eight months pregnant, she and her baby were dead. Her husband said he could not take care of the surviving children and left them in the care of his in-laws, to remarry another 15-year-old.

Saabira's story is told every day, in many countries the world over. Every two minutes, someone like Saabira dies in childbirth somewhere in the world.

Thailand is fortunate in that relatively few mothers and newborn babies die _ this is closely linked to a well-functioning healthcare system and the use of family planning which reaches almost 80% of all women. Elsewhere this is not the case, and when a woman dies in childbirth, her newborn baby will suffer, as well her other children.

No woman should die giving birth. And there is a global drive to end this terrible predicament, which is also one of the global Millennium Development Goals adopted by all countries in 2000. A global conference, "Women Deliver" will take place in Kuala Lumpur on May 28-30 to assess progress and commit to bringing down these damning statistics.

Thailand will be present as well to showcase how it has brought down maternal and newborn mortality rates, and offer support to other countries that might learn from its experience.

The theme of this international meeting is: "Invest in Women and Girls _ It Pays." Investing in empowering women and girls is key to lowering maternal and infant mortality. It is estimated that every year, 9.2 million children in the world die before their fifth birthday, as do more than 500,000 pregnant women. The situation is particularly acute in the Asia-Pacific region, whose share of the global total is nearly 41% of the under-fives, more than 44% of the mothers and 56% of the newborn babies.

It is often said that for every additional year of education a poor girl receives, the likelihood that she and her baby survive pregnancy and childbirth increases. Women who are more educated are more likely to have fewer children, and to space childbirth which reduces the risk she and her baby faces.

We also know that when a mother dies, the rest of her family will suffer _ economically and emotionally, and in terms of health and wellbeing.

Women keep families together and insist on good health and education for their children.

Almost all of these deaths can be prevented. It does not require complicated or expensive technology or research. All the solutions are known and the means available. But it requires political will to make it a priority, and it requires sustained investment in family planning as well as antenatal care and skilled birth attendance for all mothers and their newborns.

Donor governments must continue making this a priority for funding. Thailand, also, could do more to support other countries in making its financial and technical resources available to those countries where women and babies are still dying.

Investing in women and girls makes economic sense. USAid has estimated that maternal and newborn mortality leads to US$15 billion in lost potential productivity globally every year. The cost of saving their lives would have been much less _ $12 billion, or 10 baht a day for each live saved.

So is it worth spending that 10 baht a day to save a life? You bet.

In fact, we are already spending it. The worldwide economy loses 13 baht a day for each mother and baby who dies _ because they died.

So the question is not whether the money gets spent or not _ it's whether you get something back for it.

Caspar Peek is Representative for Thailand and Country Director for Malaysia, United Nations Population Fund.