Philanthropist Melinda Gates announced Monday that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $1.5 billion over five years to support maternal and child health projects abroad.
Gates, whose husband Bill is co-founder of Microsoft Corp. and one of the world's richest people, made her announcement at an international conference on women's health attended by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The event was billed as the largest-ever conference on women's health.
Gates said the world is not lacking in know-how to reduce the number of deaths in childbirth.
"It's that we haven't tried hard enough," she said.
"Policymakers in both rich and poor countries have treated women and children, quite frankly, as if they matter less than men," Gates said. "They have squandered opportunities to improve the health of women and babies."
Ban said he senses a new momentum among governments, foundations, businesses and humanitarian groups for forging a more comprehensive and coordinated approach to improving women's and children's health.
"We are seeing a global movement for an end to the silent scandal of women dying in childbirth," he said, according to a text of his prepared remarks. "We can stop this, and we will."
Ban touted what he called a joint action plan to accelerate programs designed to improve women's and children's health. The U.N. chief called on government officials, business executives, health professionals and others to submit ideas and proposals before the action plan is finalized in coming months.
In her speech, Gates said the greatest obstacle to improving the health of women and newborns is not a disease or a logistical challenge like keeping vaccines cold.
"This obstacle is a belief -- the belief that we just have to accept the fact that mothers and children die," she said, adding that the world has the know-how and capacity to save women and children.
"Yet in many countries the belief that death is inevitable, and therefore acceptable, hasn't yet changed," she said. "We don't have to tolerate fatalism."
Gates said the $1.5 billion that the Gates Foundation will invest through 2014 will support projects addressing family planning, nutrition and health care for pregnant women, newborns and children. A significant portion of the new money will support programs in India, Ethiopia and other countries that have relatively high rates of maternal and child mortality, she said.