Maternal Mortality

Gender discrimination linked to maternal mortality

Oppressive attitudes towards women are reflected in high maternal mortality rates in the developing world; medical experts say most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable but treatment for impoverished women is extremely limited.

Every 90 seconds a woman dies in pregnancy or childbirth; her loss shatters a family and severely threatens the well being of her surviving children.

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A new mother at the Edna Adan Maternity Hosptial in Somaliland

Photo by Nicholas Kristof

While the World Health Organization and United Nations report that the number of woman dying from pregnancy-related causes is slowly decreasing, it remains a cause for extreme concern in many parts of the world where women are denied access to basic medical attention.

“In much of the developing world, women don’t even have the basic right to go and see a healthcare professional. It’s not even considered something that women should do,” says Sheryl WuDunn, co-author of Half the Sky. “And that’s the attitude that is prevalent in so much of the developing world. So it’s discrimination and often it leads to death, so it’s discrimination to death.”

The majority of women are dying from severe bleeding, infections, eclampsia, obstructed labor and the consequences of unsafe abortions – all causes for which there are highly effective interventions.

Of the hundreds of thousands of victims of maternal mortality, 90 percent live in Africa and Asia, according to the United Nations Population Fund. The maternal mortality ratio in developing countries is 290 deaths per 100,000 births versus 14 deaths per 100,000 in developed countries. Some of the leading factors leading to maternal deaths are:

  • Poverty
  • Distance from medical care
  • A lack of information
  • Inadequate medical services
  • Cultural practices

At the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Somaliland, a semi-autonomous region within Somalia, visiting midwife Jayne Peters has witnessed the awful aftermath of this discrimination, saying that in her four weeks in Africa she had seen more women and babies die from pregnancy-related complications than during her entire 16-year career in the United Kingdom.

“No woman in this day and age should die of eclampsia, should die of obstructed labor, nor anemia. … This woman typifies every woman in developing countries, every woman in a poor country like mine.”

— Edna Adan, founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Somaliland

“Remember, this is a country where the women have no say on their own bodies. We can’t even do a Caesarian section on a lady here without her husband giving us permission to do it. Even in an emergency,” Peters says.

Somalia and Somaliland have one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world; quite simply, it is one of the most dangerous places for a woman to become pregnant.

Earlier a woman was brought to the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital from a border town between Somaliland and Ethiopia. She was anemic and convulsed with seizures. Her blood pressure had plummeted. "She quickly died," says Edna Adan, the hospital’s founder.

“No woman in this day and age should die of eclampsia, should die of obstructed labor, nor anemia. … This woman typifies every woman in developing countries, every woman in a poor country like mine,” Adan says.

Global maternal health of often ignored by policy makers in the developing world, journalist Nicholas Kristof wrote in a February 25, 2007, column on the issue in The New York Times.

“But it’s an issue that deserves far more support, partly because we know exactly what to do to bring down maternal mortality and morbidity,” Kristof wrote.

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Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide is not in any way affiliated with or in partnership with the Half the Sky Foundation, a nonprofit organization created in 1998 to enrich the lives and enhance the prospects for orphaned children in China. For more information about the Half the Sky Foundation, visit halfthesky.org.