My mother was a remarkable woman. A great entrepreneur, and an excellent wife to my father, who was a schoolteacher, she managed her own small business sourcing fruits and gave birth to eight children: four boys and four girls.
She was born in 1924, she was strong—and she was an inspiration. Every day was a balancing act between work and the requirements of a big family. She understood that each one of us must live a productive life and contribute to society, and she insisted that we go to school, work hard and do our very best. But she also had a soft spot for those not doing so well. Apart from her own children, my mother regularly took in cousins and nephews who needed help. Sometimes there were as many as 15 of us in our home.
My mother had a strong sense of self. She believed that as a woman she had rights, and she knew that women had to be empowered if lives were to be saved and if families and communities were to thrive. She — and my father — instilled those ideas in all of us.
I know my mother was not the only one to demonstrate such values. So many mothers, including my wife, are role models to their families and communities. I want to take the opportunity of Mother’s Day to encourage everyone to remember and honour not only their own mother, but all mothers. We are so used to the idea that mothers are strong, resourceful and ever-present. They are there when we need them, they invest in their children, they hold the family together.
We often forget that mothers need support too, but this Mother’s Day can help us to focus on the lifeline that women extend to us. It is a reminder that they should not be taken for granted, but are entitled to equal rights and opportunities. When women are healthy and educated and can participate fully in society, they trigger progress in their families, communities and nations.
Yet women continue to face widespread discrimination and violence. They lag behind men in access to education, land, credit and decent jobs; they hold far fewer policy-making roles; and they continue to lack sufficient access to reproductive health services as modern family planning, skilled birth attendance and emergency obstetric care if things go wrong.
Like many other women in our community, my mother was able to space our births, leaving at least two years between children. She also gave birth safely in the hands of skilled personnel at a maternity clinic around the corner from our house in the village of Ijebu-Igbo in southwest Nigeria. That was not the norm back then—and in many places of the world, it still isn’t. The challenges of pregnancy and childbirth threaten women’s lives every single day. Though in Bangladesh, fewer women today are dying during pregnancy or childbirth than in 2001, the number is still unacceptably high. We should do everything we can to make sure no woman dies giving life.
Many births also result in debilitating injuries, such as obstetric fistula, which can often be prevented when births are assisted by a midwife or in a health facility that has the right equipment and staff to handle a complicated delivery.
It is well known what needs to be done to keep women alive and healthy. On this Mother’s day let’s all pledge to do our utmost to make maternal death and inequality a thing of the past. Let’s make motherhood safe. Let’s make our mothers proud.
Although my mother died in her 80th year, I still feel her presence and wish she could see me now, heading UNFPA, a United Nations agency that is helping ensure that every pregnancy is wanted, every childbirth is safe and every young person’s potential is fulfilled in more than 150 countries. I know she’d be pleased. But she’d also want me to be humble. She’d say that providence has put me here to accomplish an important mission in the world, and I promise I will do my very best.
Babatunde Osotimehin is the executive director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund.