It was the fourth time Nelia had planted; and still, the rains were not enough to germinate her seeds. She had buried her first seeds in the Zimbabwean soil in December. But the regular, predictable rains she remembered from years past never materialized. The second and third crops also failed. I met Nelia in Zimbabwe last month. Her story left me feeling very concerned. With seven children and grandchildren to feed, she had knocked on doors, begging neighbours for enough seeds to try again. Nelia planted everything she gathered, but it was nowhere near enough to feed the children and keep them healthy. Most days she’s only able to feed them once. In Zimbabwe, drought has placed the country’s people in a state of disaster. More than a quarter of the population is facing food shortages, brought about by the lack of predictable rainfall needed to grow their crops. When this kind of shock hits communities living amidst fragility, the already poor chances worsen for a young woman to survive pregnancy, childbirth and raise healthy children. This World Health Day, April 7, Zimbabwe presents us with an alarming example of women’s and children’s health under threat. Water insecurity and poor sanitation are chronic concerns. But introduce an element like drought and you tighten the screws even further on the country’s most vulnerable people, its women and children. Nelia’s plight is shared by millions of mothers, across Zimbabwe and around the world. These are stories we must not ignore, particularly since Canada has the power to help change their endings. Global initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals provide proof that extreme poverty and preventable deaths can be brought to an end. Nearly a billion people were lifted out of extreme poverty in 20 years. But most of that success has been in countries that are more stable, politically and economically. In Tanzania, for example, Canada has partnered with the national government to strengthen health systems from the national level right down to the community. This picture is starkly different in the world’s more fragile places, like Somalia, South Sudan and Syria. Here, governments are either unable or unwilling to provide health systems for their people. Human rights violations, under-nutrition and unmet need for family planning, especially amongst adolescents, are higher than anywhere else. Perhaps not surprisingly, 60 per cent of the world’s preventable maternal deaths and 53 per cent of deaths in children under five occur in such places. Given that a third of the world’s people reside in places facing such turmoil, these percentages are staggering. Zimbabwe has made significant progress, yet many of the country’s most vulnerable women and children live amidst fragility. Canada is no stranger to working in fragility. Over the past five years, 44 per cent of our country’s maternal, newborn and child health funding has been directed to places like Haiti, Afghanistan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo—all of which top mortality and malnutrition lists. It’s a concrete move in the right direction, and we must continue our excellent work for women and children here. Canada can play a critical role in ending preventable child and maternal deaths within our generation. There’s no question: our approach in such places must be unique. The shifting, often turbulent settings in which families live demand a blend of urgent humanitarian work, mixed with the strengthening of their health systems over the long term. Funding and approaches must be flexible, to meet unexpected developments, like the drought Zimbabwe is facing. The burden of making up the surprise shortfall must not fall on the shoulders of the most vulnerable. I was acutely aware that three of the children in Nelia’s care were girls. For women and girls, health goes hand-in-hand with empowerment, and realizing their human rights. Early marriage often occurs as parents explore a last resort to ensure their children are protected. Forcing girls into childbirth before their young bodies are ready can result in death for mothers and babies alike. Girls must be able to remain with their families, stay in school and marry if and when they choose to. Where women are supporting children on their own, livelihood support ensures they can nourish their children and help them to thrive. Canada must never overlook the incredible hope, strength and determination in even the world’s toughest places. Our country can help bring preventable child and maternal deaths down to zero in the world’s most fragile places. Our task is more daunting, without question. But this just makes our potential impact greater.