Maternal Health Key To Empowering Women

May 20, 2011

By Amnesty’s Women’s Human Rights Coordination Group

Next week, we’ll be concluding our Mother’s Day blog series by looking at the international dimensions of maternal mortality.  Today we’d like to focus on maternal health as a key to empowering women worldwide.

Globally, motherless children are 10 times more likely to die within two years of their mothers’ death.  A mother’s health and nutrition, what care and assistance she received during her pregnancy and delivery determined whether she and you are alive today, and whether you are battling with developmental problems, birth defects, or illnesses, including perinatal HIV.

Every 90 seconds a woman dies from pregnancy or childbirth-related complications. This is 1,000 women, or more than 2 filled-to-capacity jumbo jets crashing daily.  Amnesty International considers this a human rights scandal, not only because almost all of these deaths are preventable, but because they are the culmination of abuses and discrimination against women, from insufficient access to basic healthcare, lack of comprehensive family planning and reproductive healthcare services, early marriages, gender-based violence, to inadequate redress.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that nearly all maternal deaths are preventable with greater access to essential maternity and basic health-care services, active and emergency obstetric care, and access to safe abortion services.

In 2000, the international community adopted eight Millennium Development Goals (MDG) with targets to be reached by 2015, all addressing key aspects of development that affect the quality of women’s lives, from access to education, improved health outcomes, to the eradication of poverty.  MDG 5 calls on the global community to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters by 2015 and to achieve universal access to reproductive health. According to the UN, it is among the development goals that are the least likely to be met by 2015.  Yet, the world has recognized that without access by all women – whether they choose or delay motherhood or choose not to become mothers at all – to comprehensive reproductive health care and gender equality; national and global progress on poverty and development will remain elusive.

During the landmark 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in Cairo, 179 states affirmed that “achieving gender equality and empowering women are key components of eradicating poverty and stabilizing population growth.”  They recognized that progress depends on the “provision of universal access to reproductive health services, including family planning and sexual health.”

Commendably, since 2009, the US Department of State’s Human Rights Reports for each country in the world contains a section that assesses each nation’s maternal mortality rate.  The reports also assess every country’s respect for the internationally accepted basic right of couples and individuals to decide freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children.  The reports stop short of outlining reasons for high maternal mortality rates, causes that include systemic abuses against women and denial of services that only women need.

Promisingly, over the past 2 years, 146 out of 172 countries reduced their maternal death ratio, from Bangladesh to Peru.  Some of this achievement was made possible by US foreign assistance funding. Such aid, while it constitutes a fraction of the international target for countries to channel 0.7% of their national income to official development assistance, often makes up the largest bilateral contribution to reproductive health abroad.  Yet, maternal mortality remains needlessly high, and much more work remains to be done.

Gains abroad, slippage at home

While Congress debates whether women should even be allowed access to basic reproductive health services, the rate of maternal mortality in the US has worsened, falling from 41st to 50th in the world, according to data released in 2010.  It is riskier for a woman to deliver in the US than in nearly all European countries, Canada, and several countries in Asia and the Middle East.  While the US spends more on healthcare than any other country, it sports some of the worst maternal and reproductive health outcomes in the industrialized world, from rates of maternal deaths to teen pregnancies. Amnesty International USA’s recently released 2011 update to its groundbreaking report, Deadly Delivery, The Maternal Health Crisis in the USA, outlines the gains and gaps addressed over the past year.

Our discourse must smarten up.  Only by addressing the inextricable links between poverty, gender empowerment, discrimination, access and availability of comprehensive reproductive healthcare, will we be able to effectively stop needless deaths of over 350,000 women annually affecting their families and communities, across the globe, and in the United States.

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