GENEVA / NEW YORK, 7 March 2003 - More girls and women die from the complications of childbirth in developing countries than from any other cause, UNICEF said today, calling the figures "a shameful record of discrimination and apathy toward women and their rights."
Speaking on the eve of International Women's Day, UNICEF said that some 1400 girls and women die each day from causes related to childbirth, 99 per cent of them in developing countries.
"The same number died yesterday, and the same number will die tomorrow - most of them in silence," UNICEF Executive Director Carol Bellamy declared. "On this International Women's Day, we're speaking for the girls and women who aren't alive to tell their stories, and for their orphaned children. We're speaking for the girls and women who are fighting for their lives right now, for those shut out from education, and for the millions who are exploited or discriminated against.
"We're here to say that in this era, no woman should have to struggle for equality and respect. No woman should have to shoulder the disadvantage of being denied an education. And no girl or woman should die in the process of giving birth."
UNICEF said that more than half a million girls and women die this way every year. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, a woman has a 1 in 13 chance of dying in childbirth. In industrialized countries, the risk drops to 1 in 4,085.
Maternal deaths alone do not reveal the full scale of the tragedy. In fact, for every woman who dies from complications related to childbirth, approximately 30 more suffer injuries, infections, and disabilities which are usually untreated and unspoken of. An estimated 300 million women today - or a quarter of the women in the developing world - have sustained problems in pregnancy and childbirth that have profoundly affected their lives.
"It doesn't have to be this way," Bellamy said. "The gap between women in developing countries and women in industrialized countries is phenomenal - but it proves that we know what to do to prevent these deaths. And we should do it."
UNICEF said that the widespread provision of emergency obstetric care is the single most effective way to reduce maternal deaths.
In a few developing countries, broad-based partnerships and sustained political commitment in providing emergency obstetric care have saved lives without exorbitant costs. Honduras cut its maternal mortality rate by almost 40 per cent by investing in emergency care for pregnant women. In Egypt, UNICEF and its partners assisted in driving down the maternal mortality ratio even more dramatically through emergency care.
"Maternal mortality flies below the radar of public attention unless it's connected to a loud emergency like Afghanistan, because women don't live to talk about it and the cameras aren't there to record it," Bellamy said. "In most poor countries, women die with few witnesses and even fewer advocates to promote their right to healthcare."
The UNICEF chief added that childbirth is not the only circumstance in which women's rights are being trampled. She pointed out that even as 1400 women die each day giving birth, tens of thousands more are suffering other abuses of their rights.
· Exploitation during conflict: More than 80 per cent of the world's 35 million refugees and displaced people are women and children. During and following conflict, women and girls endure extreme sexual violence and abuse - sometimes driven by the need to feed themselves and their families. And conflict spreads AIDS. In Rwanda, 2,000 women, many of whom were survivors of rape, were tested for HIV during the five years following the 1994 genocide. Four out of five tested HIV-positive; many had not been sexually active before the genocide.
· Gender and HIV/AIDS: HIV/AIDS is fuelled by, and exacerbates, entrenched gender inequities. Women take on much of the burden for caring for the sick and dying, yet are more likely to be thrown out of their homes, marginalised from communities, and turned away from health care centres. They have little or no access to land or credit, which leaves them few options for survival. In communities hard hit by AIDS, "survival sex" has become commonplace - further spreading the disease.
· Young Girls and AIDS: Women under 25 face especially bleak prospects when it comes to HIV/AIDS, UNICEF said. They are becoming infected faster and earlier, and few are aware of the most fundamental prevention basics. In sub-Saharan Africa, where in the 15-to-24 age group two girls are infected for every boy, half of girls believe that a healthy-looking person cannot carry the virus. In the most-affected areas, five or six adolescent girls are infected for every boy. Further, girls are more likely to be pulled out of school to support the family, meaning they're shut out from life-saving HIV/AIDS prevention information as well as the longer-term education and life skills they need for an independent future.
"Protecting girls and women in times of conflict, protecting them from HIV, keeping them alive during childbirth - these are all goals UNICEF is committed to," Bellamy said. "But unless the powers that be fully respect and enforce the rights of girls and women, we won't achieve any of these goals."
Bellamy pointed out that the nations of the world have put women high on the list of commitments they made in the Millennium Development Goals - with two of the eight goals explicitly calling for gender equality and better maternal health.
"This means women sitting at the decision-making table; it means reforming national laws to protect and empower, rather than criminalize women at risk," Bellamy said. "It means long-term community-based work to undo harmful norms that perpetuate gender-based violence, and a focused global effort on making sure that all girls go to and stay in school.
"Women and girls are the key," Bellamy insisted. "If we fail them, we fail their children, we fail their communities, and we fail the very idea of human progress."
Ms. Bellamy will travel to Afghanistan March 21-23 to highlight the challenges that continue to face girls and women. Her visit will encompass activities focused on girls' education, women's reproductive health, income disparities based on gender, and other rights issues