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MINSK, Belarus — The great strides made in reducing maternal mortality in Belarus were heralded by UNFPA Executive Director Dr. Natalia Kanem during her first official visit to the country.

“UNFPA is committed to ensuring zero maternal mortality and zero infant mortality. It is remarkable that Belarus has become a world-recognized champion in reduction of maternal mortality,” Dr. Kanem said during her visit.

Over the past 20 years, the maternal mortality rate in Belarus has been reduced from 22 women per 100,000 to two per 100,000. Significant progress has also been made in reducing infant and child mortality, each of which declined by nearly half over the past decade. As a result of these improvements, Belarus is now among the countries with the lowest maternal, infant and child mortality rates in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region.

“We will use the achievements of Belarus as a very strong example for other countries in the world,” Dr. Kanem said. “It’s important to me to learn about the methods used to ensure such a comprehensive approach to supporting pregnancy and childbirth.”

Maternal mortality, breaking down barriers to health care for women with disabilities, supporting women’s reproductive health and addressing demographic challenges through international cooperation were all on the agenda during Dr. Kanem’s visit to Belarus in December. She was accompanied on her trip by UNFPA Regional Director Alanna Armitage and by Jaime Nadal, UNFPA Country Director for Belarus, and met with representatives from government, civil society, the business world and the international community.

Watch: Dr. Natalia Kanem's visit to the Brest Regional Maternity Hospital

During her trip, Dr. Kanem visited the obstetric and gynaecological departments at the National Mother and Child Centre, including the departments of pregnancy pathology and the maternity ward, and spoke with health-care workers and patients. This visit was capped by a ceremony at which Dr. Kanem donated, on behalf of UNFPA and its partners, a gynaecological examination chair that is accessible for all women, including those with disabilities, to the Brest Regional Maternity Hospital.

“The purchase of this chair is a symbolic and powerful element of our understanding that no one should be left behind,” Dr. Kanem said at the ceremony. “That is the essence of the Sustainable Development Goals, and today we are witnessing a wonderful example of how joint efforts may lead to tangible results.”

There are 570,000 persons with disabilities living in the Republic of Belarus, many of whom face barriers to access to even routine medical care. A crowd-funding campaign led by UNFPA in Belarus aims to install at least one modern, accessible gynaecological examination chair like the one donated to the Brest Regional Maternity Hospital in each regional health centre in Belarus, and to make other improvements in facilities, infrastructure and service provision that make sexual and reproductive health care more readily available to people with disabilities.

Uniting efforts across sectors

Called “Byazmezhnaya” (Unbounded), the crowd-funding campaign is being carried out in partnership with the Republican Association of Wheelchair Users, the Dobra Foundation, the Ministry of Health of the Republic of Belarus, Hi-Tech Park, the period-tracker app Flo Health, the EVA women’s health clinic and the crowd-funding platform “Ulej” (Hive).

“The ‘Byazmezhnaya’ campaign is a unique case of uniting efforts among the business community, individual donors, UNFPA and its partners,” said Vladimir Karanik, the Minister of Health of the Republic of Belarus. “As a result of our joint effort, equipment was purchased that will facilitate convenient and high-quality medical care for women with disabilities. We hope that such a chair will be made available in every medical facility in Belarus.”

While in Belarus, Dr. Kanem met with Dmitry Gursky, the founder of Flo Health, which has been partnering with UNFPA to support women’s reproductive health. Gursky told Dr. Kanem about the company’s plans to make its mobile platform for women’s health more inclusive for women with disabilities.

Watch: Dr. Natalia Kanem's visit to Flo Health

UNFPA’s Executive Director also participated in a roundtable discussion with top government officials on demographic policies and attracting international assistance to address demographic change in the region — including shrinking and ageing populations — with the experience of successful cooperation with the Russian Federation held up as a key example.

“We believe that countries in the region will move successfully through these population transformations if they apply a harmonized medley of progressive policies,” Dr. Kanem said at the event. “UNFPA is helping support countries in addressing these concerns and promoting approaches that see older persons not as a liability, but as a potential for society. We are convinced that with the right measures in place to secure health care, regular income, social networks and legal protection, there is a longevity dividend to be reaped by current and future generations.”

Dr. Kanem also met with Andrei Dapkiunas, Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of Belarus, to set priorities for UNFPA’s 2021–2025 Country Programme for Belarus and to discuss future opportunities for cooperation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, such as promoting active longevity, reproductive health and the advancement of women; supporting people with disabilities; preventing domestic and gender-based violence; and putting in place an effective demographic and sustainable development strategy based on the use of census data.

High level of cooperation with the Ministry of Health

While visiting the Council of Ministers, Dr. Kanem met with Deputy Prime Minister Igor Petrishenko; Minister of Labour and Social Protection Irina Kostevich; and Minister of Health Vladimir Karanik, who noted with satisfaction the Health Ministry’s high level of cooperation with UNFPA and other UN agencies in Belarus. Minister Karanik stressed that this level of international cooperation has helped Belarus achieve its good indicators on maternal and infant mortality. He also said that work is being carried out very actively to combat non-communicable diseases and support people with disabilities, including through the establishment of early-intervention centres and the setting up of a council on issues facing people with disabilities.

Meeting with representatives of civil society and other UNFPA partners, Dr. Kanem described them as “the driving force that moves and leads society forward and provides guidance on progressive values. Today we talked about what we can do together to reduce the stigma against women with disabilities, people living with HIV and people affected by domestic violence.”

The concluding event of Dr. Kanem’s visit to Belarus was the launch of the first phase of the Gender Equality Programme funded by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). “When I participated in the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) in Cairo 25 years ago as a young specialist, I couldn’t have even dreamed that I would one day become the Executive Director of UNFPA,” Dr. Kanem said at the launch. “But even then, I dreamed that women and girls would have the opportunity to realize their potential without fear, achieve their goals and not be afraid of attacks and condemnation.”

“Gender equality is important not only for women, but for all members of society. It is difficult to change the way people think, it is always a long process, and that is why it is especially important that our partnership with SIDA is long term,” Dr. Kanem said, thanking Sweden and the Embassy of Sweden in Minsk for their role in promoting gender equality in Belarus and around the world.