Every minute, a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth. But the overwhelming majority of these more than 500,000 deaths a year are avoidable.

"We know how to save women's lives, we don't need a cure…this is a political problem and political will is essential," said Theresa Shaver, the director of White Ribbon Alliance.

Addressing longstanding issues like political will could jumpstart progress toward Millennium Development Goal 5, which seeks to reduce maternal deaths by 75 percent by 2015. We face daunting challenges, but there are some clear steps we can take to meet this critical goal.

We must strengthen health systems in the developing world. Increasing women's access to quality health services during pregnancy, and ensuring they are attended by skilled providers during childbirth, can help to reduce preventable causes of death, such as hemorrhage, pre-eclampsia, and obstructed labor—which together account for 80 percent of maternal deaths.

Scaling-up family planning services are a cost-effective way of preventing unwanted pregnancies, delaying the age of first pregnancy, increasing the time between pregnancies, and facilitating important relationships between women and health care providers. However, many societal and cultural factors dissuade women and girls from seeking contraception. Culturally sensitive education programs can help overcome this barrier, especially if they include men and local leaders, in addition to women and girls.

We should recognize that improving the well-being of mothers is inseparable from the health of newborns. Efforts to reach Millennium Development Goal 4, reducing under-5 mortality by two-thirds, are integral to improving maternal health. Skilled birth attendants could decrease both maternal and child mortality.

In the United States and abroad, momentum is growing to make the investment necessary to scale up these interventions. In January, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton renewed a commitment of $63 billion for the Obama Administration's Global Health Initiative, which will include significant resources for maternal and child health.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, maternal and newborn deaths cost the world $15 billion a year in lost productivity. Researchers conclude that maternal health services would cost only a $1 per day per woman. That's a small price to pay for such a high return—saving not only dollars, but also women's lives.