04/07/2014 05:31 EDT | Updated 06/07/2014 05:59 EDT

Saving the World's "Invisible" Mothers and Babies

The Afghani teenager laboured for three days, and still the baby wouldn't come. It was Nasrat's first time giving birth -- and she was terrified. As with many women and girls in remote, destitute places, Nasrat had no idea whether her baby would live. Or whether she herself would survive. Before her labour was over, Nasrat would pass out in agony. Only then did her husband find a car to make the journey to a hospital.

As a Canadian, I'm so grateful that my first experience with childbirth was very different. I had spent happy months musing about how to decorate the nursery, or whether to opt for an epidural. I had good nutrition and regular checkups. When my labour began three weeks early, a caring, knowledgeable midwife knew just what to do.

On World Health Day, it's hard to consider the loneliness, pain and fear that many of the world's mothers endure during pregnancy and childbirth. For millions, this season of new life can be darkened with questions like "Will I come out of this alive? Will my baby survive? If so, for how long?" The reality is heartbreakingly clear: nearly half of all deaths in children under five take place in the first month of life.

The Canadian government has demonstrated its commitment to preventing such tragedies. As host of the 2010 G8 Summit in Muskoka, Prime Minister Stephen Harper championed the health of the world's mothers, babies and young children. World leaders listened. Moreover, they followed Canada's lead, contributing to a total of $7.3 billion for maternal, newborn and child health.

The results have been wonderfully encouraging. In Tanzania, for example, funding from the Muskoka Initiative for just one program meant World Vision could train 350 community health workers to provide critical care to pregnant women and their babies. In just two years, more than 6,000 mothers and children have benefited from pre-natal and neo-natal checkups, skilled attendance at childbirth, breastfeeding guidance and identification and treatment of killer illnesses such as pneumonia.

Canada is now preparing to step forward again, at a global summit in Toronto next month, exploring ways to save the world's most vulnerable women and children. They must take their good work a step further. We must reach mothers like Nasrat, women living in remote, fragile regions of the world. Places like Afghanistan or South Sudan, where a woman's cry is either too remote to hear, or drowned out by the sounds of gunfire. Or perhaps her cry is ignored because it's just a woman calling out.

Because they're below the radar, national governments aren't able to fully count these mothers and their babies in routine assessments of who's missing out on key services. In many cases, a woman may not see a health worker any time during her pregnancy. She might give birth alone -- or die trying. baby may be stillborn, or die in the first weeks of life when breastfeeding isn't successful or their fragile immune system can't handle a bout of diarrhea.

Incredibly, both Nasrat and her daughter survived their ordeal - but she never forgot it. Because of her experience as a first-time mother, Nasrat recently qualified as a midwife. She now provides care to about 40 women a day. Still, though, there are the countless faces she doesn't see until it's too late.

"The baby's shoulder got stuck in the vaginal canal," she recalls, of a young mother who was brought to her after delivering at home. The baby was strangled." Of the young mother, so weak she could barely move, Nasrat remembers "I saw tears in her eyes."

We need Canada's help to reach these invisible mothers and babies before the worst happens. And so many of the solutions are almost unbelievably simple. For the cost of a package of baby cereal per person, we can offer things like basic nutrition and healthcare to mothers and new babies. We can give them help with breastfeeding, the best way to nourish a newborn, yet potentially challenging for any mother. We can offer the caring support of skilled birth attendants during labour, not afterward, when the tragedy's already written.

This upcoming Summit is Canada's moment to take new action and ramp up funding to reach these most vulnerable women and children. Like in 2010, Canada can set the stage for other world leaders to follow. If Canada champions them once again, we can finally reach those mothers and babies whose cries are hardest to hear.

Sara Schulz is Senior Policy Advisor with World Vision Canada. She's currently pregnant with her second child.