Bringing new life into the world can be risky business for moms and the babies they carry. Maternal and infant mortality are global tragedies, but the real tragedy is we know how to prevent most of these deaths. This is the abstract to the panel I am participating in today as part of the Women in the World Summit. These two sentences define the global maternal health issue at large: Every single day, approximately 800 women die during childbirth or pregnancy, equaling roughly 287,000 women a year.
This is a steep decline from the 358,000 maternal deaths reported in 2008.
This progress is a testament to the maternal health community’s committed actions. However, these statistics also point to the fact that much work lies ahead. As noted, most of these deaths (as many as 90 percent) are in fact preventable. With numbers like these, it’s clear this is one of those global issues we can do something about. We’re not waiting for a cure. Pregnancy is a normal, physiological process that most women go through without any problem or risk of danger. However, 15 percent of all pregnancies will result in a life threatening complication and we can’t always predict who will experience one.
Let’s take me for example. I had a great pregnancy and even a great delivery, but following the delivery of my daughter I hemorrhaged. Luckily, I was taken care of by a competent midwife and a supporting team of health workers who managed the situation and I survived.
My experience nine years ago is what turned me into the global maternal health advocate I am today. I learned that the same complication I suffered claims the lives of thousands of women who don’t have access to the care I received that day or any maternity care at all. Once I learned the statistics, I felt compelled to use my voice and resources to prevent these senseless deaths. We know many of the solutions for saving lives at birth. They include access to health care, inexpensive drugs that stop post-partum hemorrhage, a scale-up of community health workers, and comprehensive reproductive health services. So if we know all this, the question remains: “Why aren’t we saving these lives?”
I believe it’s a fundamental human rights issue. No matter where you live, a woman shouldn’t be allowed to die because her life is deemed less valuable than another person’s. Maternal health is both a reflection and symptom of women’s status around the world. To prevent needless deaths we must support all efforts to empower and educate girls and women and the rest of our global communities. Girls shouldn’t be forced to conceive or marry without consent. They should have access to sexual and reproductive health information and services, including comprehensive family planning tools to help them control and plan their family size. When girls complete secondary education, they’re more likely to delay first pregnancies, have fewer children, and space their births, which all help ensure that moms survive to raise their children and ensure those children’s survival.
Additionally, society as a whole must appreciate and understand the value of girls and women. In Peru, while working with the international humanitarian organization CARE, I visited one community that reduced death rates by 50 percent in under five years by implementing simple measures like encouraging women to deliver at clinics, calling women by name rather than by a number, providing access to midwives that spoke their language to assist their deliveries, respecting their birthing traditions, establishing a referral system and providing transport to a hospital if an emergency developed.
These interventions aren’t rocket science; but they require one incredibly precious commodity — the political will to address this crisis. Political will is simply a reflection of the public’s priorities and right now, an issue that virtually no one knows still exists doesn’t rate very high. Until we achieve our goal to reduce preventable deaths at birth we must continue to share stories of girls and women who have yet to fully realize their rights. My hope, in participating in conferences like Women in the World, sharing my birth story and those of other women through Every Mother Counts, is that women who exercise their right to health in their daily lives will make it possible for all women to do so someday. Over time, we have proven—women are as patient as we are resilient, and when we are moved to action, there’s no more powerful force in the world.