Ordinary women make extraordinary contributions as caregivers and caretakers, as breadwinners and bread-makers to families and societies.  And even so, we know that women will not be able to thrive, unless they survive.  On Tuesday, the U.S. Government celebrated remarkable country-level success in saving the lives of women during pregnancy and childbirth.

Health ministers from Afghanistan, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, and the head of maternal and child health from Rwanda took center stage on Capitol Hill. And each told a unique and personal story.

Dr. Suraya Dalil spoke of overcoming illiteracy among Afghan women, a lack of roads and transportation, shortages of female healthcare providers, poor quality health services to tackle the reproductive risk of pregnancy and child birth.   “You need to eliminate child marriage, space child births and provide basic services,” she said.  “Now mothers are surviving and families are thriving.”

Maternal mortality reduction was once viewed as an insurmountable problem. And for two decades after the Safe Motherhood Initiative was launched in Nairobi in 1987, there was no documentation that motherhood was safer, as promised.

Decreases in maternal mortality ratios have been accompanied by substantial improvements in maternity and obstetric care, family planning, systems strengthening, community mobilization, and educational attainment among women. Still, about 300,000 women lose their lives in childbirth, and many more suffer complications each year.

Cambodia halved maternal mortality in five years thanks to dramatic increases in skilled health care workers in facilities at the time of delivery. Dr. Mam Bunheng of Cambodia said the government reduced financial barriers for obstetric care by introducing health equity funds, vouchers, and “midwifery incentive” to encourage pregnant women to deliver at public facilities, rather than at home.

USAID Administrator Dr. Raj Shah keyed in on drivers of successful maternal health programs and how such efforts can be accelerated and sustained throughout the developing world. “There are lesson to be learned from each of the country experiences.”

The celebration occurred during a two-day U.S. Government Evidence Summit on Enhancing Provision and Use of Maternal Health Services through Financial Incentives. Evidence revealed the potential for some financial incentives to bring women to maternal services and to improve the quality of that care so that it is, indeed, life-saving.

Dr. Ariel Pablos- Méndez, who presented the awards and closed the summit said, “As we salute each country, we realize that there remains still an unconscionable number of maternal deaths.  We must embrace health-in-all policies and a continuum-of-care approach and concentrate on the pre-pregnancy through postpartum period, in the community and at appropriate health care facilities. We have an unprecedented opportunity to maintain the momentum of saving lives–and alleviating poverty and inequality. In this decade, we can harness the economic transition of health to build better health systems that ensure access for all to appropriate health services at an affordable cost in the 21st century.”