Key United Nations agencies and the World Bank issued a joint statement October 29 recommitting themselves to placing a high priority on reducing maternal mortality worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) joined the World Bank in marking the 10th anniversary of the Safe Motherhood Initiative and announcing priority actions that governments and societies must take to reduce the 600,000 deaths that occur annually from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Ninety-eight percent of these deaths take place in developing countries.

The three core areas cited in the joint statement are advancing the empowerment of women "to make choices in their reproductive lives with the support of their families and communities"; improving access to and quality of maternity care and delivery services; and ensuring access to family planning information and services, to enable women "to choose if and when to become pregnant."

In issuing the statement, WHO Director-General Gro Harlem Brundtland said joint action "will result in greater synergy in our work at the country level, and in the end save more lives." She noted that the leading causes of maternal death are hemorrhage, high blood pressure, obstructed labor and unsafe abortion; in some parts of the world, she said, unsafe abortion alone accounts for more than one-third of maternal deaths. For her part, UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy stressed that since nearly half of all infant deaths are attributed to poor maternal health care, saving more mothers will also result in saving more children.

Speaking to the importance of enhancing women's role in society, UNFPA Executive Director Nafis Sadik asserted that "motherhood cannot be safe until women are allowed to be more than mothers and properly valued and respected by their families and by society. Discrimination against women and girls in terms of nutrition, health care, education, and employment opportunities must be eliminated," she said, "and access to reproductive health, including family planning information and services, must be guaranteed."