Turn the spotlight home [women and children dying from preventable causes]

TheStar.com – Opinion/Editorial
Published On Mon Feb 15 2010

With millions of women and children dying from preventable causes each year, there are good reasons for Prime Minister Stephen Harper to make child and maternal health in developing nations a priority at the G8 summit in Ontario this summer.

But many of the conditions that lead to those deaths – living in overcrowded housing with no safe drinking water, in communities where nutritious food is unavailable or too expensive to buy, and where medical care that keeps children and mothers healthy is inadequate or entirely unavailable – are not only found in the Third World. These conditions of poverty and poor health are found here at home, too, particularly in aboriginal communities.

That’s why NDP Leader Jack Layton has called on Harper and other party leaders to use the upcoming session of Parliament to focus on the health of Canadian women and children, as well as the poverty and inequality that make them so vulnerable in the first place.

“If Canada wants to lead or lecture the world on anything, we’d better start by filling the gaping holes in our own backyard,” said Layton last week.

Indeed, Canada’s overall infant mortality rate is getting worse. In 1980, our rate was the 10th lowest in the industrialized world. Now, we’re sitting in the 24th spot.

Layton’s call on Harper to expand his focus to include Canadian women and children builds on the reaction of Inuit leaders when Harper first made his pledge last month.

The northern leaders pointed to two just-released studies that found 70 per cent of Inuit preschoolers live in homes where there isn’t always enough food and Inuit infant mortality rates are more than three times the Canadian average.

Concluded the researchers: “There is an urgent need for more effective interventions to improve maternal and infant health in Inuit-inhabited areas.”

The researchers found that a “substantial” number of infant deaths could be prevented and that, in addition to better education and health care, “investments in socio-economic and living conditions” would help.

Unfortunately, a $5 billion plan to do just that – the 2005 Kelowna Accord – was killed by Harper when he came to power.

While Harper’s newly stated commitment to make women and children “the top priority” at the G8 summit is welcome, it would be more convincing if he were leading by example at home.

The needless deaths of so many women and children in the developing world each year are “simply not acceptable,” wrote Harper on the Star‘s Opinion page last month. “The solutions are not intrinsically expensive. The cost of clean water, inoculations and better nutrition, as well as the training of health workers to care for women and deliver babies, is within the reach of any country in the G8.”

Surely the Prime Minister can see that the same logic applies to Canada’s aboriginal peoples as well.

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