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The Plight of Pregnancy: Maternal Mortality in Developing Nations

by Sarah Hackley

Instead of a time of hope, pregnancy too often means death for women in developing countries. In September of 2008, UNICEF reported that one in 76 women in developing nations die from pregnancy or childbirth complications. In sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, the statistics are simply staggering; women in Niger die at the astonishing rate of one in seven. Throughout the world, at least one woman dies from pregnancy related complications every minute.

Maternal mortality is largely preventable. In industrialized nations, like the United States, maternal mortality rates are significantly lower than those of developing nations - approximately one in 8,000. Though widely unaddressed, the causes are well known, often involving inadequate or unattainable emergency care. "Ensuring that all women are attended by qualified personnel during delivery is one of the most effective means of saving mothers' lives," Brian Hansford, Communication Specialist at UNICEF, said in an interview. "Skilled attendants must be able to handle typical deliveries safely, as well as recognize the onset of complications that require emergency care. Furthermore, they need to have access to emergency obstetric facilities should the need arise."

According to the World Health Organization, 99 percent of maternal deaths occur in developing nations, and an accessible, quality healthcare system would prevent many of these deaths. While culture is often cited as a major contributing factor to maternal deaths, a Reproductive Health study of deaths in rural Gambia, published in 2005, reported: "Contrary to the common belief that women do not seek care and die in the community, we identified a number of women who initially intended to deliver at home, but tried to get assistance once a complication occurred. The problems encountered in trying to do so, reveal major obstacles in access to appropriate care within an acceptable time."

In an attempt to address the issue, countries around the world have committed in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals to a 15 percent reduction in maternal mortality by the year 2015. The international goal, however, has a long way to go before being reached. From 1990 to 2005, the rate has dropped a mere 5 percent.

There is hope, however. "There have been encouraging improvements in the percentage of women who have access to skilled attendants at delivery, and other facets of maternal health, such as access to antenatal care. This progress forms the basis of reducing maternal deaths," Hansford said.

In Sri Lanka, the number of women dying from childbirth and pregnancy-related complications has dropped substantially from 1960 to 2005, reports UNICEF's "State of the World's Children Report 2009." According to the UNICEF report, the lives saved are primarily a result of "a synergetic package of health and social services to reach the poor."

This combination of improved access to health care and increased education for women and girls could be the crisis's antidote. In the 2009 UNICEF report, Ann M. Veneman, Executive Director of UNICEF, detailed this approach: "Educating girls and young women is one of the most powerful ways of breaking the poverty trap and creating a supportive environment for maternal and newborn health. Combining efforts to expand coverage of essential services and strengthen health systems with actions to empower and protect girls and women has real potential to accelerate progress."

While hints of progress are emerging, overall progress remains slow. In order to meet the UN Millennium goals of reduced maternal mortality rates by 2015, the international community must strive to improve women's access to quality healthcare and education, while making intense efforts to decrease poverty.

Cited by Hansford as "one of the world's most neglected health issues," the reasons behind such neglect are clear to those involved. "That maternal health – as epitomized by the risk of death or disability from causes related to pregnancy and childbirth – has scarcely advanced in decades is the result of multiple underlying causes. The root cause may lie in women's disadvantaged position in many countries and cultures, and in the lack of attention to, and accountability for, women's rights," says the 2009 UNICEF report.

May 6, 2009

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Sarah Hackley is a freelance writer and journalist based in Manhattan. Previously a feature writer for with a column on women's rights, her work also has appeared in Texas Family Magazine, The Final Draft: Midnight Masquerade, and The Austin Young Poets Anthology.

Also see
“The Terror of Motherhood in Somaliland and Women’s Rights to Safe Care” by Edna Adan Ismail
in the Fall 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.

See "Activists Boost Female Health Empowerment" by Eleanor J. Bader in this edition of On The Issues Magazine.


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